HOLLIDAYSBURG - Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron has ruled that an Altoona businessman who was placed on probation for conspiracy and receiving stolen property is not entitled to withdraw his guilty pleas just because he learned after sentencing that the prosecution would have difficulty presenting a case against him.
Michael Friedenberger, 43, who operated a city secondhand store, was arrested in July 2006 and charged with theft and related offenses allegedly for using drug addicts to steal commodities later sold on eBay.
The case took years to reach the trial stage because the defense accused Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman of withholding information about plea agreements offered to potential prosecution witnesses.
The Superior Court finally ruled that bringing Friedenberger and other members of his family to trial would not violate their constitutional protections against double jeopardy.
By the time Milliron was assigned the case late last year, nearly six years had passed.
Milliron said the case had a "tortuous history" and set jury selection for April.
That led to a plea agreement with Friedenberger in which almost all the charges against him were dismissed and he entered pleas to the two offenses.
After the sentencing was completed, Gorman said the case would have been difficult to prosecute. He told the news media that three prosecution witnesses had died while the case languished in the court system.
Altoona attorney Steven P. Passarello then filed a request to let Friedenberger withdraw his pleas because he had not been informed about the prosecution's deceased witnesses.
Passarello contended that under those circumstances Friedenberger's pleas were not "knowing, intelligent and voluntary" as required by law.
Milliron dismissed the request without a hearing, and Passarello is appealing the decision to the Superior Court.
The judge concluded that the death of a witness is not something the prosecution has to disclose to the defense.
Milliron stated in his opinion, which will be sent to the Superior Court, that Friedenberger's pleas were voluntary.
In a transcript of the court proceeding, the judge asked Friedenberger if he was pleading guilty to conspiracy and receiving stolen property, and he answered he was. He told the judge he had no doubts about what he was doing.
He was aware of the charges and the range of sentences, Milliron said.
The judge said Friedenberger was also aware that he was entitled to a jury trial.
"The law does not require that [Friedenberger] be pleased with the outcome of his decision to enter a guilty plea. All that is required is that [Friedenberger's] decision to plead guilty be knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently made," stated Milliron.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.\