On this weekend when America remembers the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the Blair County NAACP is questioning if there is prejudice in the Blair County justice system.
Don Witherspoon of Altoona, president of the Blair County chapter of the NAACP, said long jail terms for African-American suspects are having a devastating effect on that community and he is hoping for changes in the system.
Blair County judges, however, said while they respect Witherspoon and his efforts on behalf of others, they don't believe blacks are being treated poorly or in a biased manner.
Marcy English, 46, said she believes she was made an example because she was from "out of town" (she's from Monessen) and was drawn into the drug world because her husband was an addict. She is in the fifth year of a seven-year minimum prison sentence.
Justina Williams, 26, of Altoona is pregnant and is expecting to have her child in prison. Her biggest problem, she said, is getting good medical care at the prison.
Natasha Qiana Miller, 32, of Altoona just had a baby but won't get to raise the child because she was given a 16- to 32-year prison term for helping to run a local drug operation. "I didn't run anything," the first-time offender said.
Then there is Glenn Piner II, 27, who has been charged with a bevy of drug offenses.
He has been held at the Blair County Prison for 14 months without trial and has had only three contacts with his court-appointed attorney. When his case came up for trial on Monday, a jury couldn't be selected because his attorney has been temporarily suspended from the practice of law.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said.
Another African-American inmate at the county jail, Sandy Miller, pleaded Friday to robbery charges because she said she wanted to "end this nightmare." She is to be released today after serving nine months.
Stephen Piner, Glenn's father, also charged with drug offenses, said he has been offered 60 years in prison. He believes his race is a factor in the offer that would keep him locked up for life.
Michael Pendleton, an Altoona native, said he is a cocaine user who got his drugs from many sources. He said he was not part of a Baltimore drug organization, but just a guy who uses drugs.
"I have no idea where they get the drugs, and I don't care," he said about his purchase of drugs from the alleged dealers allegedly associated with a Baltimore-based organization.
Pendleton, 46, was sentenced Monday to a term of seven to 20 years.
His advice to young people: "Go get a job. The biggest mistake I ever made was to pick up a joint ... and alcohol."
Witherspoon has spent the last few years attending trials, listening to the complaints of primarily black defendants and bringing perceived problems to the attention of the judges.
He has been assisted by Bill Sweet of Claysburg, the NAACP's vice president, and Alice Lawrence of Altoona, a longtime member of the organization.
Witherspoon has concluded that often the sentences for black defendants "do not fit the crime, especially when it comes to first-time offenders."
"We believe in some cases treatment and rehabilitation can work with certain individuals if they are given a chance," he said. "We are also concerned and have received numerous complaints regarding the inefficiency of legal counsels assigned to the accused."
Witherspoon said the NAACP finds discrepancies in sentences between whites and blacks, and he complains that not all the information about a suspect's case is being given to them on a timely basis, infringing on their right to a speedy trial.
"We believe we can get things resolved without involving the NAACP, the ACLU, the Department of Justice, the Human Relations Commission or the Pennsylvania Prison Society. And we also believe we can make this a better community for everyone by embracing our differences and showing respect for everyone," he said in a written statement.
Witherspoon said he isn't trying to make waves, but he just wants to bring the problem to the attention of the judges and the community.
He applauds efforts by Operation Our Town and police to address the area's problem with illegal drugs.
"You have to pay your debt to society when you screw up," Witherspoon said.
But, he said, the African-American community is "being really impacted" by the long prison sentences meted out by the judges, particularly when it comes to drug cases.
Blair County's four Common Pleas Court judges said while they are aware of Witherspoon's concerns, they don't believe there are sentencing discrepancies.
"Don keeps us vigilant. I welcome it," Judge Dan Milliron said. "[But] you've got to have something to back it up.
"I have absolutely seen nothing that is objective that would tell me people are discriminating against [African Americans] because of color," he said, calling such prejudice in the courtroom "reprehensible."
"I would not allow it to happen," he added.
Milliron said in sentencing defendants, he most often follows the state's sentencing guidelines. He also revealed that he just began an 18-month term on the state's Sentencing Guideline Commission.
Judge Elizabeth Doyle, who oversees a juvenile drug court, said the county judges take Witherspoon's concerns seriously.
"Blair County has been a leader statewide in treatment courts," she said in reference to Witherspoon's comments that treatment and rehabilitation rather than prison may be the answer in some situations.
She added that there is no discrimination as to who is admitted to the treatment courts, but according to the law, anyone with a violent background is not eligible for treatment courts.
Judge Timothy M. Sullivan said he remembered one complaint he discussed with Witherspoon concerning a defendant's claims that a hearing was held in his case when he wasn't present.
Sullivan said an investigation, however, showed that the defendant was present and testified at the hearing.
He said the judges "go to great lengths to preserve and protect those rights [of suspects] in every case we handle."
He explained that in a very high percentage of criminal cases, the sentences imposed are consistent with plea and sentence agreements that are negotiated between the District Attorney's Office, the defense and the defendant.
President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva said racial issues in the court system "would not be acceptable," and, she said, she would like to talk about those issues with Witherspoon.
Kopriva said the timing for when a case is tried often rests with the District Attorney's Office.
race plays part
Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio said he assesses prosecutions on a "case-by-case basis" and race is not a factor.
"I have tremendous respect for Don Witherspoon. He's a hell of a guy, but I'm not sure what he is saying is fair," he said.
Consiglio said he doesn't care about a drug dealer's color or ethnic background, but he said many of the people who come to Altoona from New Jersey, New York or Maryland to distribute cocaine, heroin and other drugs happen to be minorities, which is something he can't control.
"I'm involved in getting these bums off the street," he said regarding the prosecution of drug dealers.
Consiglio pointed out that those who have received long sentences from drug dealing are not all black defendants. He said they have included Richard Rickabaugh, a white Altoona resident, sentenced to 44 years, and Efrain Hidalgo, a native American from Buffalo, N.Y., sentenced to 60 years.
Among black defendants receiving long prison terms were Akil Johnson from New York, sentenced to 42 years; Charles Bellon from Philadelphia, sentenced to 31 years; Rasheed Myers from New York City, sentenced to 20 years; and Gene D. Carter of Philadelphia, sentenced to 104 to 209 years.
In sentencing Carter a year ago, Senior Judge Thomas G. Peoples' sentence pinpointed many of the reasons why out-of-town drug dealers get long sentences.
Peoples reported Carter was involved in dealing drugs "purely for his own financial gain." He said Carter "polluted the community" with drugs and declared Carter a danger to the community.
Consiglio also showed the charts from several recent drug operations, including the Bellon and Johnson organizations, that showed both whites and blacks being arrested. Then Consiglio pointed to the chart depicting the Bellon organization.
Bellon began his local operation with a Philadelphia resident, Norman Ransom, also an African-American.
Consiglio pointed out Ransom received a prison sentence of 7 to 15 years. Bellon received 31 to 62 years.
The difference was that Ransom cooperated with the investigation and received a plea agreement. Bellon fought his charges, and continues to do so, but ended up convicted or multiple offenses.
Consiglio said, in his time as district attorney, he has sent three individuals to death row for first degree murder - William Wright of Altoona, who is white; Miguel Padilla, a native of Mexico; and Andre Staton of Baltimore, who is black.
The idea that "all the blacks are getting harmed and all the whites are getting out, that's not true," Consiglio said.
Witherspoon said he will continue to monitor the local judicial system.
"We believe in our criminal justice system and fairness for all of God's children should be at the forefront," he said. "That is how we made this country great. Let's keep it that way."
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.