Friday, December 7, 2012

Parents of Murder Victim Break Down In Court

Karen Panas found out she had rectal cancer in 2006. She had to undergo radiation treatments and chemotherapy. She couldn't sit down for six weeks, and spent every day in bed. She had to endure four operations, and wound up with a colostomy bag.

Her husband had to work, so Karen's primary caretaker became her son, Billy Jr.

Billy Panas Jr.
"He cooked, he cleaned, he did everything," Karen Panas testified in federal court. He took her to doctor's appointments, radiation and chemo. At home, while she was lying in bed, Billy would  play computer games with her. He prepared meals, and cleaned the house to his mother's exacting standards. He didn't even flinch when it came time to change Mom's bag.

Karen Panas lost her primary caretaker on Nov. 21, 2009, when Police Officer Frank Tepper shot 21-year-old Billy to death. It happened after the off-duty cop came out of a party at his house and attempted to disperse a bunch of teenagers by waving his gun and threatening to shoot everybody.

Billy, who was unarmed, made the mistake of saying, "He won't shoot anybody." He was shot once  in the chest, and was dead on arrival at Temple University Hospital.

Karen Panas's brief testimony came to an end today when she held up a graduation picture in front of her face and sobbed, "He's my son."

There would be no cross-examination. "No questions," said Deputy City Solicitor Mark V. Maguire.

Karen Panas and her husband, William, of Port Richmond, are suing Tepper and the city in federal court for damages. Tepper, who was convicted of first-degree murder in February and is serving a life sentence, decided not to be represented at the civil trial.

Karen Panas was followed to the witness stand by her husband. William Panas held up an exhibit and started crying. "That's my son's certificate from barber school," he said.

James J. Binns, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, asked Billy's father to read a letter an instructor from barber school had sent the family after she found out what happened to Billy.

The father's hands were trembling as he held the letter. "He was always smiling," the father said, before he began sobbing.

Judge Legrome D. Davis admonished Binns, who responded by quickly ending William Panas's testimony. At sidebar, the judge could be heard lecturing Binns, "That's an obvious play for sympathy."

The day in court featured testimony from dueling expert witnesses.

Joseph Stine, a former Philadelphia police inspector, testified on behalf of the prosecution that his former police department was responsible for Billy's death, because it failed to adequately investigate or discipline Tepper, who had 35 internal affairs reports, and several frightening confrontations with minors.

Before he shot Billy Panas to death, Tepper had Maced a crowd of teenagers and waved his gun at them; he had beaten up two kids for having a snowball fight, and he had brandished his gun at a ten-year-old who made the mistake of dribbling a basketball at the playground across the street from Tepper's house.

"It's sad but it was predictable," Stine testified about the shooting of Billy Panas. When a police department doesn't discipline or get rid of bad apples, "They basically encouraged them to continue .. It enpowers them," Stine told the jury.

On cross-examination, Deputy City Solicitor Maguire pointed out that when he prepared his expert report, Stine had relied on ten witnesses who said that Tepper had identified himself as a cop and displayed his badge before he shot Billy Panas to death. Stine concluded that even though Tepper was off-duty, the city was responsible for the cop's conduct, because Tepper identified himself as a cop, and was performing a police service when he committed the murder, namely attempting to disperse an unruly crowd.

In preparing his report, Stine relied on the testimony of ten witnesses who had attended a party at Tepper's house, a baby shower for his step-daughter. To reach his conclusion that Tepper was basically on duty the night he committed the murder, Maguire argued, Stine chose to ignore the testimony of nine witnesses who were with Panas at the time he was shot. Those nine witnesses all claimed that Tepper did not identify himself as a police officer before he pulled the trigger.

Four of the nine witnesses, however, had said they already knew that Tepper was a cop.

Maguire and Stine clashed repeatedly over whether Tepper was officially on duty when he murdered Billy Panas. Stine told the jury about his days as a recruit at the Philadelphia Police Academy back in 1966.

"We were told that we're a police officer 24 hours a day," Stine told the jury. "We're held to a higher standard ... I know, I teach this stuff to fellow police officers."

Stine's testimony came under criticism from Judge Davis. It happened after Deputy City Solicitor Magure made a motion for the judge to toss the plaintiff's case out of court, because they hadn't met the burden of proof. Such motions are often perfunctory. But in a rambling discussion with lawyers on both sides of the case while the jury was out of the room, the judge sounded like he was taking the motion seriously.

Judge Davis opined that Binns had certainly presented sufficient evidence that the city of Philadelphia had exhibited "deliberate indifference to the use of excessive force" by Former Officer Tepper.

But Judge Davis said he had doubts about whether Binns had demonstrated that the city of Philadelphia was directly responsible for the murder of Billy Panas. Stine, in his expert testimony, repeatedly said that the city should have fired Tepper on numerous occasions, and had him arrested for crimes such as aggravated assault and battery. But the judge said he found the testimony of the plaintiff's expert to be fallacious, because it overlooked the fact that even if Tepper had been fired and arrested, he would have had to undergo a trial, and a conviction wasn't a sure thing.

The judge asked Binns to provide case law that said an employer who doesn't get rid of a bad employee is responsible for any crimes that the employee commits.

"They created a monster," Binns argued. But the judge said that Binns' expert, Stine, was a former cop, not a psychiatrist. So the judge was not impressed by Stine's testimony that the police department encouraged bad behavior by not punishing or weeding out bad apples.

"If there's no causation, this case is over," the judge said ominously.

When the judge repeated his request for more case law, Binns said he didn't have any.

"If I didn't prove my case, I didn't prove my case," Binns said.

The judge didn't rule on the city's motion to toss the case. Maybe he was trying to encourage both parties to settle. Courthouse gossip has the city supposedly making a preliminary offer, but the parents are said to be not in a compromising mood.

So the judge told the city to put on its case.

The city presented two witnesses. The first was Lt. Kevin Long of the city's internal affairs division. Lt. Long told the jury how the division operates, dwelling on policies and procedures. He said the division had 148 employees who diligently investigate every allegation against a police officer. Internal affairs also monitors the department by computer to see if any officer has any dangerous levels of allegations against him.

Amazingly, Police Officer Frank Tepper's conduct and bulging personnel file did not set off any internal alarms, Lt. Long said. Tepper worked in the 15th District, the busiest in the city, where they have a reported 110,000 police incidents a year, Lt. Long testified.

Tepper only had 14 reports in his file about the use of force while on duty. That's not much in 16 years, Lt. Long told the jury. Tepper also had only seven abuse complaints in his file, which also wasn't a big deal.

It ended mercifully before Lt. Long got around to describing the office furniture at internal affairs. On cross-examination, Binns didn't ask a single question.

The final defense witness was Walter Signorelli, a former New York City police inspector and professor of criminal justice.

Signorelli examined Tepper's file and concluded that prior to the murder, Officer Tepper didn't deserve to be fired. Take the day Tepper waved his gun at a crowd of teenagers and sprayed them with Mace.

"I don't see any reason at all" why the cop should have been fired, Signorelli testified. Tepper was confronting an unruly crowd, and dispersing an unruly crowd is a police function.

The defense expert also thought it was reasonable for Tepper to want to talk to the teenager who had given Tepper's eight year old son Frankie Jr. a wedgie. That's what set off Tepper to wave his gun and Mace the teenagers.

"He's going out to talk to him," Signorelli said. Of course, it was stupid to get into an altercation with the teenagers, Signorelli said. The best thing to do was for Tepper, who was off duty at the time, was  to call 911, the expert said.

"So he's an active officer," Signorelli said.

On cross-examination, Binns took issue with Signorelli over the defense expert's commentary on the case of Ronald Spencer. Spencer was the 18-year-old who was detained and arrested after he refused to give Officer Tepper his ID.

At the time, Tepper was one of several cops searching for a murder suspect who was supposed to be "armed and dangerous," Signorelli said. Tepper ran up to Spencer, pointed a gun at him, and demanded to see his ID. When Spencer refused, he testified, Tepper punched him in the face. Then Tepper and several other cops subdued Spencer by twisting his arm behind his back and forcing him face down on the sizzling hood of an idling car. Spencer, whom detectives subsequently said was the wrong guy, wound up with second-degree burns on his forehead and a broken arm.

Binns put a stack of documents in front of Signorelli and asked him to point out where in those voluminous depositions and police reports that it said the murder suspect at large was "armed and dangerous," as the expert had claimed.

"Perhaps I'm mistaken," Signorelli said.

Signorelli also agreed with Binns that it was "not appropriate" for Officer Tepper to punch Spencer in the face. It was also inappropriate, Signorelli said, to not let Spencer out of jail, even though he was an innocent man, until Spencer apologized to Tepper for not showing him sufficient respect.

After the defense rested, Judge Davis asked lawyers on both sides how long it would take for them to make closing arguments. It sure didn't sound like Judge Davis was going to toss the case.

Binns said 30 minutes, Maguire, 45.

The judge told the jury, "You'll have the case in your hands Monday morning." Then he told the jury to have a "relaxing weekend."

To the lawyers, he said, "I'll see you at 9 o'clock Monday morning, and we'll go straight to closings."

1 comment

  1. Wonder if the South Philly mob hit had anything to do with the trial ... news is just coming out - Nicodemo being questioned,..


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