By Anne Freedman
Monday, August 20, 2001
Four local instances point out the imperfections of the criminal justice system. And those mistakes have had a devastating impact on the lives of four men.
NORRISTOWN —Three years. Four men. All wrongly accused of crimes. All exonerated when the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office dropped the charges.
In 1998, Timothy R. Griffiths of Upper Gwynedd was charged with hundreds of counts of indecent assault and sexual abuse after his wife and daughter falsely accused him of assaulting the girl.
In 1998, Michael F. Gallagher, a teacher with the Abington School District, was charged with repeatedly raping a former student after the girl lied and accused him.
In 1999, arson investigators wrongly concluded that Paul Camiolo set his parent's Upper Moreland home on fire to kill them for the insurance money.
In 2000, a salesman in a Cheltenham Township appliance store wrongly identified Robert Harris as one of the men who robbed the store and shot the manager.
Griffiths spent five weeks in jail and months on house arrest and lost his job of 22 years before his name was cleared.
Harris spent almost four months in prison awaiting trial before the charges were dropped.
Camiolo sat in prison for 10 months before he was set free.
Gallagher's teaching job was suspended without pay before his accuser's story unraveled.
"We are not in the business of locking up innocent people and if we make a mistake, we are in the business of moving as rapidly as we can to change it," said District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr.
But he and other attorneys know that mistakes happen.
"The unfortunate fact is there are some people —and hopefully it's a very small segment of people —who are convicted that are actually innocent. It's a scary thing," said Seth Green, the assistant public defender who represented Harris.
Marc Steinberg, a widely known, successful defense attorney in the county, said that innocent people being charged with crimes is "an unfortunate byproduct of the (criminal justice) system."
"I actually believe that the district attorney's office tries to do a good job of making sure that they have sufficient information and evidence against somebody before they charge them. Sometimes you have victims that are making things up," he said.
That was certainly the case with his client —Griffiths —whose wife and 16-year-old daughter contrived the charges of repeated forced incestuous relations during a contentious divorce proceeding, said Steinberg.
A polygraph test that showed Griffiths was telling the truth about the charges, he said. That, plus the mother's refusal to take such a test, and the fact that the daughter's story about the assaults changed every time she told it, contributed to the charges being dismissed, he said.
"It was a real ugly case," Steinberg said. "It just completely turned his life around."
Griffiths lost his job at a Horsham company after the arrest and couldn't get it back once the charges were dropped. He couldn't even sue because he did not have a contract.
His neighbors "think he's a leper," said Steinberg.
The only reason he remains in the area is that a disabled son is being cared for here, and Griffiths needs to remain in contact with him. The wife, daughter and a younger son have moved to Colorado. No charges were ever filed against the wife or daughter.
Neither were charges filed against Margaret Powell, who falsely accused Gallagher, an Abington school teacher, of raping her when she was an elementary school student.
She failed a polygraph test and upon repeated examination prior to trial, Powell's story began to deteriorate and change. Prosecutors dropped the charges.
"We tend to believe victims," said Castor. "Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, we believe her."
The "oath of a person" is sufficient under Pennsylvania law to bring charges, he said.
He said a grand jury heard evidence against Powell, and it declined to charge her with perjury after concluding "there was no evidence of criminal intent on her part, that she was mentally disturbed," said Castor.
In the Griffiths case, he said, the charges were dropped for three reasons. Griffiths passed a lie detector test. His daughter offered "contradictory statements, some under oath," and there was a "victim motive to lie."
"I was not convinced that the girl was lying. I didn't know whether she was or not," he said.
It was circumstantial evidence that led police to charge Camiolo in the death of his parents, specifically, the presence of gasoline on the floor of his elderly parents' home, which was destroyed in a fast-moving blaze on Sept. 30, 1996 that killed Rosalie and Edward Camiolo.
Investigators hired by the defense eventually discovered that the gasoline was leaded gas, something that hadn't been sold in the United States since 1984, and was probably used in the home back then to dilute floor varnish —not as an accelerant, as prosecutors alleged.
In this case, Camiolo's boss kept his job open for him and continued to pay him during his 10 months in prison awaiting trial. He has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Upper Moreland police.
Castor said he still has doubts about that case. "The fact that there was another explanation (for the gasoline) ... doesn't mean that the fire was not intentionally set," he said. "All that means is that you cannot be conclusive about it being intentionally set."
In the Harris case, it was eyewitness testimony from one of the store salesmen that linked him to the robbery and shooting of a Cheltenham Township appliance store manager.
Harris' own family in Philadelphia, who viewed a videotape of the store robbery and identified Harris, who has since moved to North Carolina, backed up that testimony.
"That was the problem," said Green. "His family making a call saying that (the videotape image) kind of looked like him. Apparently they were interested in the possible reward money.
"When you look at a videotape and it's not entirely clear, and a family member says, 'OK, that could be him,' that really ... lights a fire under the police," he said. "I am glad they are not related to me."
Countering the positive identifications were the two other two store employees, including the manager who was shot, who could not identify Harris —and a customer in the store at the time who definitively declared that Harris was not one of the robbers, said Green.
"Eyewitness testimony is not all that it's cracked up to be all the time," he said. "It's scary because there are people who are innocent in jail. We know there are people who have been jailed in some cases where DNA evidence cleared them who were convicted with eyewitness accounts so we know it's not the most compelling evidence, but to a jury, an eyewitness identification is damning."
He noted that even in a case like this, which was "pretty thoroughly investigated by the detectives," a man was wrongfully arrested. But he does not believe there is any pattern of negligence in the county.
Neither did any other defense attorney contacted for comment.
"I don't think there is anything that can be done but to urge the police and the district attorney to be careful before they charge someone," said Steinberg. "I honestly believe that they try.
"It's to their credit that the district attorney's office when they realize that their prosecution is an inappropriate one, they will drop it rather than put somebody through the rigors of trial to prove their innocence. I commend them for that."
Castor said prosecutors in some other counties would take dubious cases to trial and leave it up to a jury to acquit the defendants. He thinks that's wrong.
"I think the people elected me to utilize my individual judgment and experience and decide whether people should be arrested —and if they have been arrested and they should not have been, to release them.
"Some prosecutors will say, 'it isn't my job to determine the credibility of the witnesses. That's a jury's job.' But ... if you do it that way, you might convict somebody who doesn't deserve to be convicted and set yourself up for sending an innocent person to jail," he said.
"The justice system in America ... is the best system available," said Castor, "and while it isn't perfect, we try to make it as perfect as we can."