Piner will get his trial

For six months, Ken Piner, 52, of Altoona has denied his involvement in a drug organization that distributed kilograms of cocaine in the Altoona area.

He now will have the chance to tell his story to a jury.

Blair County Senior Judge Hiram A. Carpenter ruled late Thursday that Piner can withdraw his guilty pleas to 16 drug-related charges.

When entering the pleas on Sept. 5, Piner admitted he was part of a corrupt organization that in 2010 and 2011 brought substantial quantities of cocaine from Baltimore to Altoona where the drugs were distributed through the Corner Bar and Grille, 1001 Eighth Ave.

But within days, Piner recanted his pleas, admitting that he sold $50 and $100 amounts of cocaine but denying he was part of a conspiracy to bring large quantities of drugs to Blair County.

In a hearing on Monday, Piner said police were trying to “spin” the story, contending he was part of an organization headed by Damion “Benny” Floyd of Baltimore and others who took over the operation after Floyd went to prison.

Piner said he agreed to plead guilty and to accept a jail sentence of at least 19 to 38 years – 25 to 50 years if he didn’t cooperate with police – for several reasons, noting that he was distraught by the death of his wife, that he and his attorney, R. Thomas Forr, did not have time to prepare for his trial and that the prosecution gave the defense loads of evidence in the form of grand jury testimony, phone taps and surveillance tapes just days before trial.

He said he also pleaded guilty to avoid a longer sentence, pointing out that one dealer in Blair County last year received a minimum sentence of 104 years after being convicted of corrupt organization charges.

Carpenter addressed each of Piner’s complaints in an 11-page opinion.

The most important reason to grant Piner a trial, Carpenter said, is his claim of innocence.

“This assertion of innocence by the defendant is by far the most important claim he raises in support of the withdrawal of his plea in our judgment,” Carpenter wrote. A claim of innocence “has generally constituted a fair and just reason for withdrawal,” the judge stated.

Carpenter said that while Piner was estranged from his wife and their two minor sons, he emphasized that Piner described this point in his life as “a very tough time.”

“To deny that the death of the mother of his children had no impact on the defendant because they were separated is to deny him humanity,” the judge wrote.

The judge also agreed that the prosecution did provide the defense with a great deal of material close to trial.

The issue that Carpenter said was the “least compelling” was Piner’s argument that he entered guilty pleas because he feared an even longer prison sentence.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman has argued withdrawal of the guilty pleas could prejudice the prosecution because a key witness, Piner’s girlfriend, has medical problems and possibly would not be available for trial.

The defense countered that police recorded hundreds of calls between Piner and the girlfriend and noted her comments would be on the recordings, which would help allay prejudice to the prosecution’s case.

Piner, Carpenter said, has consistently asserted his innocence to the corrupt organizations and conspiracy charges, noting also Piner doesn’t deny dealing drugs.

He said Pennsylvania law “requires we allow the defendant to withdraw his plea in this matter and that his request to have a plea of not guilty entered on his behalf should be granted.”

The judge ordered that Piner and his attorney appear for jury selection Monday morning.

Forr did not return a phone call Thursday afternoon, and Gorman has consistently refused to speak about the case because of a gag order imposed by Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.