Meadville Tribune

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February 5, 2013

Rejected by state's supreme court; local pot grower sentenced

MEADVILLE — Marking the end of a case that had been appealed all the way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a Meadville-area man has been sentenced in the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas to a total of five years in state prison for running marijuana growing operation in his then-city home in June 2009.

John Mark Donahue, 58, of 10246 Perry Highway, Meadville, was sentenced Monday by Judge John Spataro on a total of two counts each of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance; and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia.

Tuesday’s sentencing came after Donahue’s appeal for a new trial was denied without comment by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in December 2012. Donahue had claimed that a confidential informant who illegally broke into Donahue’s home provided evidence that led to Donahue’s arrest. As a result, Donahue claimed that the evidence should not have been used in court.

On Tuesday, Donahue was given a state mandatory five-year sentence and a $50,000 fine by Spataro for one of the possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance charges because more than 50 marijuana plants were involved.

Spataro ordered Donahue to serve a one- to five-year sentence on the other possession with intent to deliver charge; and six- to 12-month sentences each on the two possession of a controlled substance charges and the possession of drug paraphernalia charge. He also was ordered to pay court costs and an additional $500 in fines.

All the sentences will run concurrently with credit for 18 days in jail.

In June 2009, Meadville police seized 166 marijuana plants and other drugs from an indoor growing operation inside Donahue’s then-home on Kearney Street.

Donahue and a co-defendant Constance Johnson, then 29, were charged in the case, but charges against Johnson were later dropped by the Crawford County District Attorney’s Office. The DA’s office filed the motion to drop its case against Johnson following Donahue’s trial rather than reveal the name of the confidential informant who supplied the information that led to the arrests of Donahue and Johnson.

In a county court trial before Spataro in January 2010, a jury found Donahue guilty of the five charges, but also acquitted him of a charge of possession with intent to deliver cocaine.

After the trial began a series of appeals spanning more than two years by both David Ridge, Donahue’s defense attorney, and the Crawford County District Attorney’s Office.

The conviction was appealed to Spataro after it was learned the police department’s confidential informant in the case illegally broke into Donahue’s home prior to his arrest. That information came to light before Donahue’s original sentencing date in 2010 in an interview between a detective Donahue had hired and the confidential informant, according to court records.

Donahue argued that because of the break-in, the evidence the confidential informant gave police to prepare an arrest affidavit was illegal.

On July 27, 2010, Spataro issued a ruling ordering both a new trial for Donahue and that all evidence obtained from the search warrant in the case be suppressed.

But, on Aug. 13, 2010, the DA’s office appealed Spataro’s ruling to Pennsylvania Superior Court saying the trial court had erred in applying case law in granting a new trial and suppressing evidence.

On June 21, 2011, Superior Court ruled the confidential informant “was not acting as an instrument or agent of the Commonwealth when we broke into  Donahue’s residence. Moreover, the circumstances of this case do not support a conclusion that Officer (Brian) Joseph initiated, ratified, acquiesced to, encouraged or supported” the informant’s illegal entry into Donahue’s home.

The Superior Court ruled “the trial court erred in deciding that Officer Joseph improperly relied on the information” that was obtained illegally by the informant.

“Nothing in the record suggests that Officer Joseph should have questioned the reliability” of the information, Superior Court ruled.

The Superior Court found the record showed that in 2008 the informant approached the officer for two reasons — to help himself if the informant ever got into trouble; and to “clean up some of the drug activity that he was aware of so that Meadville would become a better place for his daughter to be raised.”

The Superior Court noted drug activity by Donahue didn’t come to Officer Joseph’s attention until the informant stepped forward.

Based on the record, Superior Court found that Spataro’s opinion that Officer Joseph should have suspected the reliability of the informant’s information “is untenable.”

The Superior Court found the informant had provided reliable information to Officer Joseph in the past; the informant and Officer Joseph had a friendly relationship; and it was the informant’s own efforts that brought Donahue to Officer Joseph’s attention.

The Superior Court found previous case law in suppressing evidence was misapplied in Donahue’s case which “resulted in its erroneous conclusion that Appellant (Donahue) was entitled to a new trial without the evidence.”

Donahue then appealed the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but it denied the appeal without comment on Dec. 12, 2012.

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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