But for a ham sandwich, the signature case of Blair County Judge Hiram A. Carpenter's 23 years on the bench may never have happened.
Carpenter's career as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas will end in just over a week. During the past month he has reminisced about the thousands of cases he handled, the 1,600 opinions he wrote, his three death penalty trials, a landmark civil case and the settlement of a case that served as a precursor to the financial problems and recession that have plagued the American economy for the past four years.
The 66-year-old judge is retiring because if he waited until age 70, the state mandated age of retirement for a judge, he and President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva would essentially be leaving their positions at about the same time, depriving the county court of more than 50 years of judicial experience and risking the stability of a court system that at one point in the 1980s suffered from backlog and turnover problems.
His retirement, Kopriva agreed, signals the beginning of a transition to a new board of judges to serve the next generation.
But it all began with that ham sandwich.
Soon after coming into office in 1990, Carpenter was meeting with President Judge Thomas G. Peoples in the old Highland Hall Annex on Walnut Street, Hollidaysburg, a block from the main courthouse.
After the two discussed assignments, Carpenter was on his way back to the courthouse when he remembered that he had forgotten his lunch - a ham sandwich - at Highland Hall.
When he returned to retrieve it, Peoples saw him and handed him a motion.
"Here, take this," said Peoples, who is still serving the county as a senior judge.
The motions concerned a civil case, Hutchison vs. Luddy.
At the time, the 1987 case was surrounded in mystery. Michael Hutchison and his mother, both of Altoona, had filed a lawsuit against Father Francis Luddy, a Roman Catholic priest in Altoona, and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
The filing stemmed from the unthinkable at the time - the molestation of children by a priest and charges that church officials had ignored child molestation complaints to the detriment of additional victims.
Court records were sealed, and hearings were closed to the public and the press. Judges from outside the county were assigned to hear the specifics in those closed courtrooms.
When Peoples handed that solitary motion to Carpenter, everything changed.
Carpenter's penchant for challenging cases came to the forefront and by 1994, the case was trial ready.
At 12 weeks, it was the longest trial in Blair County's history, and it resulted in a verdict in favor of Hutchison and against Luddy and the diocese.
As it turned out, the mammoth trial was only the beginning.
Luddy case unique
"There wasn't any case like the Luddy case. I had a year [in terms of hours] in that case," said Carpenter.
He devoted thousands of hours to deciding issues "that rarely if ever you'd get a chance to think about," Carpenter said.
The diocese fought the charges brought by Hutchison: that Luddy, who served as godfather to him and two of his brothers, molested him repeatedly for about eight years.
Hutchison's attorney, Richard Serbin of Altoona, said early on, Carpenter made a "very smart" decision, setting a date for trial 18 months down the road.
"That placed pressure not only on the attorneys but on the court, knowing there was a fixed date for trial. That placed pressure on everyone to get these issues resolved," said Serbin.
Civil lawsuits against the Catholic church in subsequent years were not unusual, but the Luddy case was breaking new ground. Was Serbin entitled to have access to the church archives? Could the church be sued because of actions by its priests? Was the church responsible for what priests did?
Serbin said Carpenter's decisions in the case have been cited "all over the country as the authority on the many issues that arise. It is a case that has had national recognition."
Serbin said the case took 22 years to resolve, something he never envisioned when it first arose in 1987. He said it remains the only priest abuse civil case to go the distance in Pennsylvania, and it laid the groundwork for many other child sexual abuse lawsuits that followed.
"Very few judges, only a handful, have had the opportunity to be involved in a case like that. You create law. These opinions I wrote are still used today," Carpenter said.
The Luddy case opened many eyes to the problem of child sexual abuse, he said.
"Back in that era, senses were dulled. Nobody would believe a priest would do that. ... The jury had to be persuaded the events actually occurred," he said.
Prior to being a judge, Carpenter worked in a small Altoona law firm, Mullen and Casanave, and had limited jury trial experience.
The Luddy case, he said, was a "confidence builder." The fact he was able to "march the march" in that case convinced him of his abilities as a judge - that "I can do it."
to the courts
Entering Carpenter's offices, one was struck by the coziness of the work environment.
His courtroom was small and tucked away, almost isolated, on the top floor of the old section of the courthouse.
He arrived at work most mornings wearing a West Virginia University jacket, signifying his great escape from the solemn duties of his office - sports, particularly football.
He was surrounded by longtime employees, associates and friends, like legal secretary Shirley Adams, who retired just a few months ago, and court reporter Sally Zeek, who transcribed his trials and whose comments he often cited to the juries he was addressing.
His connection to his wife, Dana, and their six children was evident on a wall in the office, covered with cartoon depictions of the judge drawn by his daughter Katie. In them, the ebullient judge performs his judicial duties, interacts with his children and vies as he might to retain the form of his much younger days as a five-sport high school athlete.
Carpenter likes to tell the story of advice he received from his father, Hiram: "There will be smarter people than you walk through your door every day, but it would be a shame if you allow anybody to walk in your door who is more of a gentleman than you are."
The tone of the office was one of work, as seen by stacks of files on the judge's desk, his work table, on shelves and even the floor, but it was an office of camaraderie and deep roots.
"Being a judge was never an end goal or end game for me," Carpenter explained.
He said he became a lawyer because his mother told people, from the time he was 3, that he was going to be a lawyer. After law school at the National Law Center at George Washington University, Carpenter came to Altoona for an interview with attorney Leo Mullen.
The two hit it off after Mullen revealed his roots were in Sistersville, W.Va., not far from St. Mary's, W.Va., where Carpenter's grandfather lived.
He credits Altoona attorney Dave Halpern with suggesting he might want to think about running for judge, when his wife was pregnant with their fourth child.
"I wanted to be involved in the community where my kids were growing up. It started to form in my mind there might be an opportunity," Carpenter said. "You think you can handle it [a new job as judge] but you really didn't know."
The Blair County court system was in the throes of a growing caseload, both criminal and civil. There was a turnover problem due to the deaths of two judges, and decisions by other judges to either not run for a full term or to resign from office. The voters refused to retain one judge and another judge was facing a retention vote.
"It was a big change to come out here. The recent history had been one of turnover," Carpenter said.
He ran and won, and in 1990 he joined with Kopriva, one of the youngest judges in Blair County history, to address the instability of the court system.
A shared vision
Carpenter doesn't hesitate to tell a story of one of his first cases, to illustrate the magnitude of the county's court backlog.
He was assigned to write an opinion about a years-old case concerning a neighborhood dispute over a tree.
He read the transcript, studied the law and wrote an opinion. After it was published, he was told the dispute had been settled two or three years before, when the neighbors decided to have the tree cut down.
No doubt changes had to be made in the system, and Carpenter and Kopriva began to discuss what needed to be done.
Carpenter, Kopriva, the other judges and Court Administrator Michael Reighard joined forces to develop a case management system that tracked cases from the day they are filed.
The two new judges discovered that judges were not assigned cases until attorneys declared them to be "trial ready."
"You didn't know what was out there. We were all at the mercy of the attorneys telling us when their cases were ready," said Kopriva.
The two "pioneering judges" began to forge the system that now not only tracks cases but provides many opportunities to settle them without the need for trial.
Kopriva said a system of summary jury trials was instituted, in which attorneys would go before a small jury of county residents and summarize their cases. These "trials" took only a couple of hours and the jurors would come back with a recommended settlement.
Carpenter said he presided over about 150 such trials, and he said in only about five of the cases did the attorneys, after receiving the jury's decision, decide to go to a full trial. In those cases, the eventual award was very close to the awards recommended by the summary jury.
Kopriva and Carpenter continued to work on improving the system by adding alternative dispute resolution, or mediation, to the list of ways to settle cases.
"I will forever see him as a partner and ally," said Kopriva, discussing Carpenter's upcoming retirement. "He's a joy to work with. He has a positive attitude. He believes in teamwork. He's a very open person. If I had problems in a case, a dilemma, he is a great sounding board."
She said he helped bring about a fifth judge, a credit card court and mortgage court to help residents work through their financial problems in this difficult economy.
"He's always seeking to find compromise. He has a lot of faith and trust in the good of people," said Kopriva.
A different case
Carpenter, in the early 2000s, needed all the conciliation skills at his command when he was assigned a case he called "a different breed of cat."
Tyrone Financial adviser John Gardner Black operated two local firms, Devon Capital Management and Financial Management Services Inc.
He amassed $230 million from 50 school districts in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and through banks and investment houses he placed the money in what Pittsburgh attorney Richard A. Finberg once called "risky, volatile securities."
The securities eventually lost millions of dollars and left school districts like Tyrone Area in a financial hole that taxpayers would have to make up.
On Sept. 26, 1997, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission shut down Black's businesses.
A flurry of lawsuits followed against the former Mid-State Bank in Altoona and such renowned investment houses as Lehman Brothers Inc.
The lawsuits landed on Carpenter's desk and in the U.S. District Court of Western Pennsylvania.
Carpenter made a decision on a motion in the case, and a short time later he received a call from U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose, who said she decided the federal court would let him proceed with the case.
He was stunned that he now had this case so important to many Pennsylvania school districts on his desk, so he called the army of attorneys into his office and confessed, "I don't know anything about the subject."
What he did know was that he lived in the same neighborhood as the president of the local bank and he wanted the attorneys to consider that possible conflict of interest.
To his amazement, the attorneys answered, "We know all about you. You'll be fine."
They said they didn't expect a common pleas court judge to know about the complex world of investments, but they agreed they would teach him all he needed to know to try the case.
As time went on, Carpenter was faced with a situation in which the case would take a year to try. He decided to counter with his own proposition: alternative dispute resolution, which would include mediation.
"Meet me halfway on that," he said, and the lawyers agreed. "It was really a test of the system."
The upshot was that Carpenter spent hundreds of hours working with each school district and each of the parties who were sued. In the end, all of the financial losses were recouped by the school districts, as the bank, Lehman Brothers and others agreed to cover the losses from the Black investment schemes.
Lehman Brothers maintained it didn't know it was doing anything wrong, and Black himself protested that he did nothing wrong, even though he spent three years in prison for securities fraud.
The Black and Luddy cases are among those that Carpenter considers the most significant of his time on the bench.
the death penalty
While studying the county court system prior to deciding to run for office, Carpenter learned the county hadn't had a death penalty case since the late 1970s when a jury sentenced Jeffrey Daugherty, a serial killer from Michigan, to death for the murder of an 18-year-old gas station attendant.
Things changed in Blair County soon after Carpenter came to office. James "Frankie" Rodgers, a juvenile, was subject to the death penalty but given life for the stabbing death of an elderly man. Senior Judge Ellis Van Horn presided over the case, which turned out to be the first DNA homicide case tried in Pennsylvania.
Carpenter was confronted for the first time with the death penalty in 2000, when William W. Wright III of Altoona was arrested for the murder of a neighbor.
The judge imposed the death penalty on Wright and is still handling issues involved in his appeal.
Carpenter also presided over the death penalty trial of William Thompson of Altoona, charged with knifing to death an elderly couple during a home invasion robbery. Thompson was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life without parole.
Thompson also continues to file post-trial motions that Carpenter must resolve.
In 2005, Miguel Padilla was charged with a triple homicide at Altoona United Veterans Association on Union Avenue. During a hearing on Feb. 1, 2007, Carpenter imposed the death penalty on Padilla.
Carpenter said in presiding over a dozen death penalty cases, he reasoned that if a jury had the courage to recommend death, and if he thought the jury's analysis of the case was correct under the law, he as a judge had the courage to impose the ultimate sentence.
"Your own feelings are tested," Carpenter said, as sentencing nears in a death penalty case.
Carpenter recently led a discussion group at the First United Methodist Church in Hollidaysburg, in which he outlined the criteria used by the court system in imposing death - aggravating circumstance weighed against mitigating circumstances. His daughter Beth, who will study for the ministry, outlined for the discussion group the church's view of the death penalty.
The law, he said, is not subjective in imposing death, but provides an objective standard.
"It is a weighing that protects your conscience. It's not about crime. It's what they [the defendants] did and the nature of it and who they are in terms of possible mitigation," he said.
Carpenter has had other notorious cases: the Richard Rickabaugh drug case, in which he imposed a 40-year sentence on the alleged leader of a drug gang; and the young couple from the Faith Tabernacle Congregation whom he sent to prison for not seeking medical treatment for their baby who died of the flu.
But when asked which cases gave him the most satisfaction, he mentioned the hundreds of custody matters.
Carpenter said because he had six children - Beth, Katie, Jennifer, Hiram, Sara and Gordon - just about any custody case that came before him included a child near the same age as his own.
He said he could identify with the parents and with the problems that come from raising a family.
"A custody case in light of a family is really about as major an event as there is. It touches the whole family circle," he said.
Carpenter said he owed it to the parents or others fighting for custody of children to explain himself. That's why he wrote an opinion in each case, rather than simply issuing an order as some judges do. He estimated he wrote 150 to 200 custody opinions.
One of the most controversial custody cases he decided came from the Hollidaysburg area. His call was to decide which parent was to get primary custody of a young girl who faced many challenges in the years ahead.
The case was so close to call that Carpenter wrote opinions both ways before deciding to give the mother primary custody.
Opening his desk, Carpenter pulled out a picture of a protest sign carried by a parent dissatisfied with his custody opinion.
His picture on the sign is positioned next to Osama bin Laden's photo, with the sign reading that Carpenter and bin Laden are both terrorists who destroy families.
He said he showed the picture to his children "so they would know their father doesn't walk on water."
What lies ahead
Hollidaysburg attorney Ted Krol talked about Carpenter's handling of custody cases, noting that while attorneys in custody cases are supposed to present pretrial statements outlining the background of the case, Carpenter would never read them.
"He wanted to hear it entirely clean without bias from the litigants trying to skew the evidence," said Krol.
Carpenter, said Krol, was always someone who allowed the attorneys to present their cases.
"He would never shortchange us from presenting witnesses and testimony," said Krol.
To Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan, Carpenter has served as a type of mentor. Sullivan has been on the bench for seven years and said he always respected Carpenter when he was practicing law in the judge's courtroom.
"He has a perfect temperament to be a judge. I never saw him get rattled. As things escalated around him, the more calm he became. I tried to emulate that," Sullivan said.
As a less experienced judge, Sullivan said he thinks at times how Carpenter would handle a situation.
"We will miss him," Sullivan said.
Carpenter likely will continue to hear some cases as a senior judge, even as he writes a book that has long been on his mind.
As he plans his future, he concluded, "I do want to say to the community, I am really grateful for the opportunity I've had to be a judge."
As he leaves office he is more confident than ever that the American justice system works.
"It has to be an imperfect system, because it is people and people are imperfect," he said. "It provides a forum for people to be heard and that is what it is supposed to do. In an imperfect world that function is so important."
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.