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Pa. judge gets 28 years in "kids for cash" case

SCRANTON, Pa. - A northeastern Pennsylvania judge was ordered Thursday to spend nearly three decades in prison for his role in a massive bribery scandal that prompted the state's high court to toss thousands of juvenile convictions and left lasting scars on the children who appeared in his courtroom and their hapless families.

Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for taking a $1 million bribe from the builder of a pair of juvenile detention centers in a case that became known as "kids for cash."

Ciavarella, who denied locking up youths for money, had no reaction as the sentence was announced. From the gallery, which was crowded with family members of some of the children he incarcerated, someone shouted "Woo hoo!"

In the wake of the scandal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned about 4,000 convictions issued by Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008, saying he violated the constitutional rights of the juveniles, including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.

Ciavarella, 61, was tried and convicted of racketeering earlier this year. His attorneys had asked for a "reasonable" sentence in court papers, saying, in effect, that he'd already been punished enough.

"The media attention to this matter has exceeded coverage given to many and almost all capital murders, and despite protestation, he will forever be unjustly branded as the `Kids for Cash' judge," their sentencing memo said.

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Al Flora, Ciavarella's lawyer, called the sentence harsher than expected. The ex-judge surrendered immediately but it was not immediately known where he would serve his time. He plans to appeal both his conviction and sentence.

Ciavarella, in a 15-minute speech before the sentence was handed down, apologized to his family, the Luzerne County bar and the community — and to those juveniles who appeared before him in his court. He called himself a hypocrite who failed to practice what he preached.

"I blame no one but myself for what happened," he said.

Then, in an extraordinary turnabout, Ciavarella attacked the government's case as well as the conclusions of the state Supreme Court and the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, a state panel that investigated the scandal. Both said Ciavarella engaged in wholesale rights violations over a period of many years.

Ciavarella denied it.

"I did everything I was obligated to do protect these children's rights," he said.

He also criticized U.S. Assistant Attorney Gordon Zubrod for referring to the case as "kids for cash," saying it sank his reputation. (Zubrod said outside court that he doesn't remember ever calling it that.)

"He backdoored me, and I never saw it coming. Those three words made me the personification of evil," Ciavarella said. "They made me toxic and caused a public uproar the likes of which this community has never seen."

In court, Zubrod said Ciavarella had "verbally abused and cruelly mocked children he sent away after violating their rights." He called the ex-judge "vicious and mean-spirited" and asked U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik to punish Ciavarella's "profound evil" with a life sentence.

"The criminal justice system (in Luzerne County) is ruined and will not recover in our lifetimes," Zubrod added.

Federal prosecutors accused Ciavarella and a second judge, Michael Conahan, of taking more than $2 million in bribes from Robert Mericle, the builder of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers, and of extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Robert Powell, the facilities' co-owner.

Ciavarella, known for his harsh and autocratic courtroom demeanor, pocketed the cash while filling the beds of the private lockups with children as young as 10, many of them first-time offenders convicted of petty theft and other minor crimes. Ciavarella often ordered youths he had found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to say goodbye to their families.

"Frankly, I don't think Ciavarella or Conahan themselves really personally cared where the juveniles went, as long as they could use their power to place the juveniles as leverage or control over Mericle and Powell," U.S. Attorney Peter Smith said Thursday.

Speaking of Ciavarella, Smith added: "There's no true remorse and there's a blind unwillingness to admit the overall seriousness of his conduct."

The jury returned a mixed verdict following a February trial, convicting Ciavarella of 12 counts, including racketeering and conspiracy, and acquitting him of 27 counts, including extortion. The guilty verdicts related to a payment of $997,600 from Mericle.

Conahan pleaded guilty last year and awaits sentencing.

Sandy Fonzo, whose son committed suicide last year at the age of 23 after bouncing in and out of Ciavarella's courtroom, said Thursday that justice was done.

"This judge was wrong, what he did to my son, what he did to all of our children, what he did to our families, and today proves that," said Fonzo, who dramatically confronted Ciavarella on the courthouse steps earlier this year.

Susan Mishanski also applauded the sentence. Ciavarella had ordered her son to spend three months in a wilderness camp for scuffling with another kid.

"They did not even tell him where they were taking him. It was like someone kidnapped my son," she said. "It was awful."

Ciavarella and Conahan initially pleaded guilty in February 2009 to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal that called for a sentence of more than seven years in prison. But their plea deals were rejected by Kosik, who ruled they had failed to accept responsibility for their actions.

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