A magistrate drops the in a disorderly court.
Inside his chambers on the 13th floor of the Criminal Justice Center, Judge Jeffrey Minehart says jury selection in the capital-murder trial of Mustafa Ali, charged with slaying two Loomis armored-car guards—both retired cops—in a 2007 Northeast Philly robbery, is going snail-slow.
“We’ve been on it for over a week and we haven’t gotten one juror yet because of motions and certain problems that have arisen,” he explains, adding that the trial will likely run about a month and a half.
Minehart, one of nine Common Pleas Court judges assigned exclusively to homicide trials, doesn’t predict histrionics, outbursts or tantrums, but anyone familiar with the history of his courtroom knows those things can happen. Minehart, a bald-on-top 62-year-old with an elfin face and a tasteful wardrobe, is widely perceived as a good judge who exerts authority without bullying litigants or going on self-righteous rants.
Prosecutor-turned-Presbyterian-minister Jerry Iamurri, who for several years ran ratephillyjudges.com, a now-defunct website on which assistant DAs and defense attorneys alike took pleasure in anonymously barbecuing arrogant judges with comments like, “an absolute jerk,” and “a real Prima Donna,” says Minehart fared well in that arena.
“Pretty much everyone thought highly of him,” Iamurri recalls of Minehart. “I remember him as being very much respected by both sides.”
In recent years, Minehart’s courtroom has been the scene of several unsettling incidents. Two months ago, he stopped John “Jordan” Lewis, a baby-faced 23-year-old on trial for murdering Philadelphia Police Officer Chuck Cassidy, from apologizing to Cassidy’s widow, Judy, who for her part informed Lewis that inside her home he’s known as “the asshole.” And last March, Minehart, a former juvenile probation officer, prosecutor and defense attorney, ordered 17-year-old James Canady bound and gagged at Canady’s sentencing hearing after the portly, bespectacled youth—about to be officially doomed to life without parole for murdering a Logan mom-and-pop store owner in ’07—called Minehart and other court officials “fucking crackers,” spat in the face of his lawyer and shouted “Fuck you!” at the judge.
A few years before that, Minehart watched in horror as teenage defendant Vidal Hernandez—now serving life without parole—charged the jury box after being convicted of first-degree murder before burly court crier Jim O’Connor tackled him.
Minehart remembers the incidents well.
Of his interruption of Lewis, now at SCI Camp Hill on his way to death row, Minehart says, “I have to shut that down. By saying, ‘I’m sorry’ and this and that, I don’t know, he might’ve meant it, but he also might have been apologizing because he knew he wasn’t going to testify and he’s trying to influence the jury without being cross-examined. So I have to stop that.”
Canady, now an 18-year-old lifer assigned to SCI Pine Grove, left a troubling impression on Minehart.
“We taped his mouth, they had special tape, because we didn’t want him to spit again. That was disturbing to me, that someone so young had that much anger. This was a kid who robbed a grocery store owned by a hardworking Chinese immigrant, then went back and robbed it again with a handgun, and this time killed the man. This is at 15-and-a-half years of age. Then he spits in his lawyer’s face, and you just ask yourself, ‘How did we get to this point? How did this young fellow get to this point?’”
Of Hernandez’s aborted jury charge, he says simply, “I was glad Jim can play linebacker.”
Minehart, a regular guy who tended bar at the Shore in his younger days, undoubtedly knows that a Pennsylvania legislative reality—anyone convicted of either first- or second-degree murder faces a mandatory life-without-parole sentence and almost certainly will spend the remainder of his or her days behind bars—is largely responsible for murder defendants occasionally wigging out.
“Yeah, in Pennsylvania, life means life,” he says.
Minehart declines to opine on the law, which obviously deprives judges of sentencing discretion.
“That doesn’t enter my process because we can’t do it,” he says.
Still, he acknowledges, he’s often struck by the all-around tragedy of someone committing murder and consequently losing his or her freedom forever.
“I do feel it, especially for a young person,” he says. “They have to be punished, they’ve committed a horrid crime, so that side of me says this is someone who’s shown no respect for human life. But when I read some of the pre-sentence reports and I see some of these kids’ backgrounds … I remember one homicide trial, the kid had just a horrid background, the parents were drug abusers, he’d been beaten, left alone from day one, almost.
“I remember I said, ‘This wasn’t a question of why this homicide happened, it was a question of when it would happen.’ Because this was someone who probably no one ever said a nice thing to.”