Deputy district attorney suspended after judge finds he withheld evidence

The Washington County Courthouse

Deputy District Attorney Joseph Zupancic was suspended with pay Friday following the outcome of a hearing in which a Washington County judge ruled he knowingly withheld evidence from a robbery defendant’s attorney.

Common Pleas Judge John F. DiSalle ruled Thursday that Zupancic and the Washington County district attorney’s office engaged in prosecutorial misconduct after Zupancic testified he “forgot” to pass along letters written by his key witness that referenced exculpatory evidence to defendant Shayne Coffield’s attorney, Amanda Como.

Zupancic tried a robbery case against Coffield in June in which Coffield and his co-defendant, Christopher M. Pitzarella, 24, of 43 W. Hallam Ave., Washington, were accused of robbing the Uni-Mart on East Maiden Street in Washington in the early hours of March 27, 2013. Two clerks working at the time were injured. One was shot, and the other was assaulted. Pitzarella testified against Coffield, claiming Coffield shot the clerk. Coffield was acquitted after a two-day jury trial.

Coffield, 24, of 247 W. Hallam Ave., was scheduled to go to trial Sept. 9 for the robbery of a Four Star pizza delivery driver March 9, 2013. Coffield was accused of the robbery along with co-defendants Pitzarella and Michael Stienstraw, 27, of Claysville. Pitzarella pleaded guilty to the robbery and was sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months in jail. The charges against Stienstraw were dismissed after DiSalle found the district attorney’s office failed to bring the case to trial in 365 days, as required under state court Rule 600. Zupancic also testified in Stienstraw’s hearing, regarding the delay.

A jury was selected Sept. 8, but instead of opening statements the next day, DiSalle was greeted with a motion to dismiss from Como, who claimed she was presented with the prosecution’s investigative material and the letters just that morning.

The letters were written by Pitzarella in Washington County jail prior to the start of Coffield’s first trial. In the first letter, Pitzarella absolves Coffield of guilt in the Four Star robbery. In the second letter, Pitzarella recants his previous statement, claiming he wrote the first letter after being threatened by Coffield.

The second letter was located in trial documents the morning of Sept. 9 by Assistant District Attorney John Friedmann, who was trying the Four Star case after Zupancic stepped down. Friedmann also was able to track down the first letter, which was in the possession of Pitzarella’s father, Carl Pitzarella of Canonsburg.

Zupancic, Carl Pitzarella and Washington police Detective Dan Rush all testified during last Thursday’s hearing. Zupancic testified he was not aware of the letters, but later said he “forgot” to mention one or both to Como.

Como argued Zupancic purposely did not provide her with letters, “because he knew it would destroy his case.”

DiSalle agreed, stating Pitzarella was a “weak witness.” He then barred Pitzarella from testifying against Coffield in the delivery driver robbery.

Friedmann argued that barring Pitzarella was the same as dismissing the charges. A new trial date was set for October, but Como said the new date raises a Rule 600 concern because it could push the case past the 365-day limitation set under the state court rule.

District Attorney Gene Vittone declined to comment Monday on Zupancic’s suspension, stating it was personnel matter.

According to 2014 Washington County salary records, Zupancic is listed as chief of litigation and makes $74,263.05 a year.

While Vittone declined to speak about Zupancic’s future with the district attorney’s office, he said he was “looking into it.”

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