Meadville Tribune

Local News

March 1, 2012

Byrd loses appeal; jail could be next stop

MEADVILLE — A local prisoner-rights advocate and former elected official has lost a state Superior Court appeal of a jail sentence on an assault charge in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas, and the county district attorney’s office has filed a motion seeking to require him to begin serving his time.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t immediately clear whether Sam Byrd Jr. plans to accept that judgment, or will further appeal the sentence to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In November 2010, a jury convicted Byrd of simple assault on charges he struck his then-16-year-old adopted daughter in the face while punishing her for disobeying him at their Meadville home on June 19, 2010. Byrd was found not guilty of a charge of endangering the welfare of a child filed by the Crawford County District Attorney’s office in the case.

Byrd was sentenced on Jan. 7, 2011, to serve a related prison sentence of three to 24 months. On that date, he filed a formal post-sentence appeal of the conviction to the county trial court, claiming the commonwealth didn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the incident created a serious risk of bodily injury or extreme pain to the girl, and also questioning whether county President Judge Anthony Vardaro — a member of the Crawford County Prison Board — was able to be impartial during the trial due to Byrd’s status as a vocal prisoner-rights advocate on the local level.

Vardaro denied that appeal in June 2011, stating the conviction was consistent with the evidence presented at the jury trial, and that Byrd didn’t produce actual evidence of bias, prejudice or unfairness on Vardaro’s part.

Byrd subsequently filed the appeal of the related sentence to the Superior Court, but his request was officially entered as denied on Feb. 22 and returned to the county DA’s office.

The Superior Court judgment upholds the previously established conviction and related sentence, also indicating that Byrd’s right to appeal on the claim of the judge’s alleged impartiality was waived because he didn’t seek a recusal at any point during the trial or sentencing.

“I was very pleased with the court’s decision in affirming Judge Vardaro’s sentencing,” said District Attorney Francis Schultz, noting it was a unanimous 3-0 decision from the panel of high court judges.

The Tribune was unsuccessful in its immediate attempts to contact Byrd for additional comment Wednesday. The Meadville resident had served as an elected official on Crawford Central School Board from 1995 to 1999 and then on Meadville City Council until 2004, and currently is president of the local NAACP. In recent years, he has been an active, certified prisoner-rights advocate, attending numerous prison board and county commissioners meetings.

The DA’s office received the notification this week that Byrd’s sentence was affirmed, Assistant DA Paula DiGiacomo told the Tribune on Wednesday.

She said the office has now filed a motion in county court that Byrd be required to report immediately to begin serving his sentence.

DiGiacomo said she wasn’t sure if President Judge Vardaro had signed the motion as of the close of the business day Wednesday. If and when he does, it would be served to Byrd and an immediate response would be required, she said.

Byrd’s options would be to file a new appeal, this time with the state Supreme Court, or to report for sentencing at the Crawford County jail, DiGiacomo said. The new appeal would have to be filed within 30 days of the Superior Court’s decision. Such an action has no guarantee that the highest court would hear that appeal, but it may take weeks or months for the court to decide if the case is to be considered, she said.

If he files the new appeal and the Supreme Court rejects the petition, Byrd would again be asked to report to begin his sentence. If the high court accepts the case, it could take months for a new ruling to be issued in the case.

Ryan Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at rsmith@meadvilletribune.com.

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