The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 22, 2013

Budget deficits force delays in Snyder County jury trials

By Marcia Moore
The Daily Item

— MIDDLEBURG — All jury trials have been postponed in Snyder County until next year due to a $31,000 budget gap in the court budget.

Judge Michael T. Hudock recently announced it in open court, citing budget constraints for the decision to postpone fall trials in Snyder County.

District Attorney Michael Piecuch said he was planning to prosecute 10 to 12 cases in the fall term. All of them will be moved to the next trial term in early 2014.

President Judge Michael H. Sholley administers the court budgets in both Snyder and Union counties and made the decision to postpone trials in Snyder County alone.

Though he admits the court has overspent its annual budget in Snyder County, Sholley denies the reason for delaying trials was strictly financial.

He also disputes there were more than a handful of jury trials scheduled for this fall and said it didn’t make sense to call 100 potential jurors for one civil trial and one criminal case.

Snyder County Commissioner Malcolm Derk said he spoke with Sholley about budget concerns, specifically a $31,191 deficit in the court’s $204,200 annual budget.

Derk said he was “a little surprised” when the judge told him jury trials would be postponed because of it, though he was assured the delays would not impact defendants’ rights to a speedy trial.

When informed of Derk’s comments, Sholley had a terse response: “Malcolm should stick to being a commissioner and let judges be judge.”

Sholley attributed his budget overspending to the costly prosecution of the Donald Seebold murder case in which three defendants were eventually acquitted in May and numerous jury trials with rising costs as well as the expense of hiring a court reporter to fill in for full-time court stenographer Colleen Wentz during maternity leave.

“I’ve been seeing a spike in the number of jury trials. I won’t speculate why,” said Sholley, who served nine years as district attorney in Snyder County before being elected judge in 2009. He became president judge in 2011.

As district attorney, Sholley said, he routinely kept his county budget 1- to 3-percent under budget. “That’s been my goal,” he said.

Piecuch said court personnel are “budget conscious and mindful that we’re stewards of taxpayer money. But at the end of the day there are cases to prosecute and we will prosecute them. We’re looking at next year’s budget, which we did this time last year with the Seebold case and as we do every year.”

His office is planning to prosecute three murder defendants next year, including the retrial of Seth Hornberger, the 20-year-old Mifflinburg man accused of fatally stabbing Alan Martin, 21, of Winfield, in March 2011, and husband and wife, Joshua and Jennifer Snook, of Sunbury, accused in the February killing of Joshua’s grandmother, Bonnie Snook, 71, in Beaver Township.

In the event the county lacks resources to prosecute a criminal defendant, Piecuch said, he would refer the case to the state Attorney General’s Office.