Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Potential Conflict Short-Circuits Hearing

Joseph Kerekes

The Times Leader reports that there may be a conflict of interest with the court-appointed attorneys in the capital murder case against Harlow Cuadra and Joseph Kerekes.

The two Virginia men, accused in the January 2007 slaying of Dallas Township gay film producer Bryan Kocis, appeared in Luzerne County Court on Tuesday for a hearing on a pre-trial motion.

But midway through the proceedings, the hearing came to an abrupt halt when attorney Mark Bufalino disclosed the potential problem to Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr.

Bufalino, one of three attorneys representing Kerekes, told the judge he and Paul Galante are associates in the same firm. Galante is one of three attorneys representing Cuadra.

And, attorney John Pike, co-representing Kerekes, announced he had represented Robert Rodden, a prosecution witness.

Olszewski continued the hearing until this morning, allowing the attorneys to research the potential ethics and ramifications of the situation.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Kerekes, 34, and Cuadra, 26, in the killing of 44-year-old Kocis last year in his Dallas Township home. Police said the two killed Kocis, then set the house on fire. Arrest records say Kocis was nearly decapitated and suffered nearly 30 stab wounds before his Midland Drive home went up in flames.

Investigators allege Kerekes and Cuadra considered Kocis their main rival in the gay porn industry, and wanted to work with Sean Lockhart, who was a contract model for Kocis’ company, Cobra Video.

The court appointed Bufalino, Pike and attorney Shelley Centini to represent Kerekes.

Galante and attorneys Michael Senape and Steven Menn were court-appointed to represent Cuadra.

Bufalino and Galante joined the Philadelphia-based Elliot Greenleaf law firm in May and work out of the firm’s Wilkes-Barre office, according to the firm’s Web site.

The six lawyers are from a pool of nearly a dozen attorneys appointed by the court when there is a conflict of representation with the Luzerne County Public Defender’s Office.

Bufalino made the disclosure about the potential conflict after Olszewski grilled the defense lawyers about the possibility that Cuadra or Kerekes may implicate each other in the murder.

Attorneys for Kerekes and Cuadra are seeking separate trials for their clients, arguing prosecutors may present recorded statements and evidence during the trial that shows the two implicated each other in the killing.

“Speaking with Mr. Cuadra, there is some hostility toward Mr. Kerekes,” Galante told Olszewski.

Prosecutors claim in court records that Kerekes told Rodden, and other people, that he purchased a knife at a local department store hours before Kocis was killed. He also said he stayed at a Plains Township motel while Cuadra traveled to Kocis’ home.

According to prosecutors, Kerekes and Cuadra made up a bogus alibi defense claiming they were with clients from their male escort service in Virginia Beach the night Kocis was killed.

Attorneys for Kerekes and Cuadra say if prosecutors use the recorded statements during the trial, they won’t have an opportunity to cross-examine either Kerekes or Cuadra if they don’t testify.

“There is a strong possibility that cross examination of witnesses may show some antagonistic hostility (toward Cuadra and Kerekes),” Menn said during the hearing.

“We can’t cross-examine the other co-defendant,” Senape said.

Investigators said Kerekes and Cuadra made several admissions about the homicide to Lockhart and Grant Roy in San Diego, Calif., in April. The two men visited Lockhart and Roy, his business partner, to discuss forming a partnership and producing pornographic movies.

Two conversations the four men had in San Diego were recorded by investigators, according to arrest records.

Both Roy and Lockhart were subpoenaed to testify at Tuesday’s hearing and were at the Luzerne County Courthouse. They are expected to return today.

Olszewski said he’ll rule at a later date on a defense motion to move the trial out of Luzerne County or to have an outside jury brought in because of pre-trial publicity. Olszewski scolded prosecutors for filing investigative reports that could prejudice Kerekes and Cuadra from receiving a fair trial.

Harlow Cuadra

Meanwhile the Citizens' Voice reports that A pre-trial hearing in the capital murder case against Harlow Cuadra and Joseph Kerekes ended abruptly Tuesday after Mark Bufalino, an attorney for Kerekes, disclosed a potential conflict of interest involving himself and Paul Galante, an attorney for Cuadra.

Bufalino revealed in a private meeting with Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. and the other attorneys on the case that he and Galante were recently hired by the same law firm, Elliot Greenleaf.

Bufalino and Galante joined the Wilkes-Barre office of Elliot Greenleaf in May, according to a news release issued by the firm.

Bufalino, Shelley Centini and John Pike were appointed last October to represent Kerekes. Galante, Stephen Menn and Michael Senape were assigned in January to represent Cuadra.

The relationship between Bufalino and Galante could create a conflict if Kerekes’ defense strategy differs from Cuadra’s, or if one defendant implicates the other — a possibility raised earlier in the day when Centini argued that they be tried separately.

Cuadra, 26, and Kerekes, 34, both of Virginia Beach, Va., are accused of killing Bryan Kocis, a producer of gay pornographic films, in Dallas Township in January 2007. They are accused of slashing Kocis’ neck to the point of near decapitation, stabbing his torso nearly 30 times and later setting fire to his Midland Drive home.

They face the death penalty and are scheduled to stand trial together beginning Sept. 2.

Olszewski ordered the hearing on pre-trial motions continued until 8 a.m. today to allow Bufalino, Galante and the other attorneys time to research the ethical and legal ramifications of the potential conflict.

“Had I been aware of it, no argument would have taken place,” Olszewski said. “Nothing that happened today would have taken place until this was resolved.”

Earlier in the day, Olszewski said he would reserve judgment on a defense motion to move the trial to a separate venue, but admonished prosecutors for releasing evidence and transcripts that include vivid detail about the case that could potentially prejudice the jury pool in Luzerne County.

Olszewski heard arguments but did not rule on a defense motion for severance, which would allow separate trials for Cuadra and Kerekes.

Centini said a rift between the former lovers and business partners could jeopardize their defense if they are tried together, as prosecutors have advocated.

Centini, hinting at a possible defense strategy, said Cuadra had been linked to the crime at every turn.

Centini said Cuadra ordered an online background check of Kocis days before the murder, sent e-mail messages and photographs to Kocis, placed telephone calls to him on a cell phone purchased and used only to call Kocis, and rented a vehicle that was seen by witnesses in Kocis’ driveway around the time of the killing.

“All of those key points have the potential to prejudice Mr. Kerekes at trial,” Centini said.

“Is there any hostility between your client and Mr. Cuadra?” Olszewski asked.

“I imagine there is,” Centini said.

Galante concurred.

“In speaking to Mr. Cuadra, there is some hostility toward Mr. Kerekes,” Galante said. “At this point I don’t know how there couldn’t be.”

Kerekes’ attorneys filed a notice of potential alibi defense in January that stated Kerekes plans to claim he was at the Fox Ridge Motel in Plains Township the night of Kocis’ murder. Cuadra has not filed a notice of alibi defense.

“Is your client going to use Mr. Cuadra to exonerate himself,” Olszewski asked Kerekes’ attorneys. “Are you going to say Cuadra’s the killer?”

“By the very nature of (Kerekes’) alibi defense, he wasn’t there,” Bufalino said.

Documents and evidence filed Monday by prosecutors, including transcripts of telephone calls recorded while Cuadra and Kerekes were incarcerated at the Virginia Beach Correctional Facility, showed that Kerekes’ alibi grew out of a “hypothetical” conversation he had with business associate Renee Martin. Cuadra and Kerekes referred to the alibi as “Plan B,” in subsequent conversations, prosecutors said.

“OK, once upon a time there was a gay escort couple that ya know, once upon a time that thought maybe working with this movie producer would be good, where as he, you know he had access to other young stars that would enhance one of the two’s career, so they set up an appointment to meet,” Kerekes said.

One of the men went to meet the producer while the other stayed at a motel that had been rented. The story matches up to Cuadra visiting Kocis and Kerekes staying at the Fox Ridge Inn, prosecutors said.

“When he approached the home, obviously there had been an intrusion, and the door was open, hypothetically and supposedly then, he found what was there, and he, supposedly and hypothetically, ran and came back to the older one, which was in the hotel and they were scared,” Kerekes said.

Luzerne County Assistant District Attorney Michael Melnick argued the attorneys for Cuadra and Kerekes must show evidence beyond the defendants’ mutual hostility that a combined trial would be prejudicial.

“What do we know right now?” Melnick said. “We know that Mr. Harlow Cuadra has signed onto Mr. Kerekes’ Plan B. Are they on a collision course? No, absolutely not. They’re on the same train, the Plan B Express.”