NEW YORK - There were audible gasps as disgraced Luzerne County judge Mark A. Ciavarella sobbed and wiped away tears.
A murmur ran through a Manhattan movie audience Sunday night as they watched footage of Ciavarella crying before documentary cameras as he discussed the idea that his grandchildren might grow up knowing him as “a scumbucket.”
This glimpse of a human, vulnerable Ciavarella - at odds with the defiant persona many remember seeing during his long, drawn-out downfall in the county’s judicial scandal - was brought to the big screen in “Kids for Cash,” which had its public debut Sunday afternoon as part of the DOC NYC documentary film festival.
The picture counterbalances the experiences of several teens and their families in the wake of juvenile sentences handed down by Ciavarella, against interviews with the judge and his one-time friend and fellow fallen jurist, Michael T. Conahan, as their legal cases were unfolding in federal court.
“In fact, we weren’t even going to make the film if we didn’t get access to those judges,” director Robert May said during a post-screening question-and-answer session at the SVA Theatre on West 23rd Street.
“It took time to convince them,” May said.
The movie is set for wider theatrical release early next year.
Four years in the making, the film by May’s New York-based SenArt production company examines the scandal which toppled the judges after federal prosecutors accused them of accepting kickbacks in connection with the construction of private juvenile detention facilities which the county used.
For May, a Back Mountain resident who watched the scandal unfold in his back yard, financial malfeasance was only part of the story.
“What struck me about it was, I might have voted for these judges,” May said. “They were celebrated guys.”
He was inspired to look deeper at Ciavarella’s long history of imposing harsh sentences on youths for even minor offenses - well before the for-profit detention centers came into play - and for operating a courtroom in which young offenders and their parents often were rushed through proceedings without lawyers.
Ciavarella’s get-tough attitude only intensified after the 1999 Columbine school shootings in Colorado, the film says, when the judge’s “zero-tolerance” stance was applauded by county schools, including the Wilkes-Barre Area School District.
“If not for the money, judge Conahan would still be a judicial court judge there,” May said.
Instead, Conahan and Ciavarella are serving lengthy federal prison sentences hundreds of miles apart, seen only as flickering images on a screen Sunday night, explaining their actions and depicted as one-time friends who grew further apart as their cases moved through the system.
But an emotional audience was able to discuss the film in person with several teens and family members who were interviewed in the documentary, including Sandy Fonzo, whose son, Edward R. Kenzakoski III, shot himself after time spent in prison and detention.
Charlie Balasavage of Wilkes-Barre was just 15 when he was arrested for possession of a stolen motorbike, despite protestations that his parents had bought it for him and did not know it was stolen. After a three-minute hearing, Ciavarella sent him off to what would turn into three years in detention.
“I just don’t want to see anybody else go through it,” Balasavage told the audience of his ordeal.
The film also focuses on the role of local media in uncovering details of the judges’ behavior, including award-winning former Times Leader reporter Terrie Morgan-Besecker, who features prominently in the documentary.
While the sold-out crowd included viewers from all over the country, local attendees included Luzerne County Judge Lesa Gelb, who said the film was important and found it “very moving.”
The movie is set for official theatrical debut in Philadelphia on Feb. 5, followed by wider distribution later that month, although officials could not immediately say when it might reach Northeastern Pennsylvania.
May explained his target audience in simple terms.
“If you love a kid, have a kid or were a kid, you need to see this movie,” he said.