There are things that happen in television courtrooms with regularity that don’t pop up the same way in real life.
The Perry Mason moments when a lawyer gets a witness to admit she really committed the crime. Surprise evidence admitted at the last possible minute. Cases heading in front of jury within days of the crime taking place.
All of those are a lot more dramatic license than they are judicial function. When it comes to a real courtroom, there are libraries full of rules about how things can happen, when, why and in what order.
They are a dance that attempts to keep a courtroom as fair as possible.
This is because everyone in the courtroom has a role to play and a job to do. The lawyers argue the fine points of the law. The jury decides which side wins. The judge is the impartial arbiter who sits in the middle, makes sure everyone plays by the rules and doesn’t change the game.
On Wednesday, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Anthony M. Mariani was scheduled to sentence Charles Becher, 24, of Carnegie, who was found guilty of third-degree murder in October. A jury spent three days deliberating before delivering the verdict in the case, a January 2021 shooting in the parking long of Club Erotica in McKees Rocks that ended in the death of Seth McDermit, 31, of Monongahela.
Instead, Mariani decided to throw out the jury’s decision and order a new trial. Prosecutors are appealing the decision to the state Superior Court.
This is the kind of thing you might expect from an episode of “Law & Order,” not a real court proceeding. Bruce Antkowiak is a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at Saint Vincent College. He called the move “enormously unusual.”
Why did this happen? Not because of arguments from defense attorney James A. Wymard, who did want a new trial, claiming the verdict wasn’t in keeping with the evidence and that the district attorney’s office hadn’t proved malice.
No, Mariani picked his own reason — that a prosecution witness said one of Becher’s cousins would “smoke all of them.” Three months later, Mariani decided that was improper hearsay and negated the entire trial and the jury’s deliberation.
Mariani is a stickler for his rules. He doesn’t let people into his courtroom after closing arguments have started so there is no distraction.
But this isn’t the first time he has taken a stance that is more drama than reality. He bucked a county court policy requiring remote access during the pandemic until a Court Watch lawsuit pointed out that requests to view 100 proceedings were refused. He had to recuse himself in the Antwon Rose II homicide case after making controversial comments on television.
His latest decision could be a pointless, heartless pain for the victim’s family. Appellate decisions have found a judge must adhere to the arguments presented and not substitute his own. In a very made-for-TV ending, Becher’s new trial could be replaced with a new sentencing hearing after all.