‘Flash mob’ tribute caps illustrious judicial career

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Colleagues, associates conspire to interrupt jurist’s last day on bench

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

Retiring Judge Howard F. Riley Jr. shakes the hands of well-wishers after his surprise tribute.

On Chester County Common Pleas Court Judge Howard F. Riley’s last day on the bench Friday, the unthinkable occurred: One of his most emphatic judicial orders was blatantly violated  – by a flash mob, no less.

The first hint of impropriety occurred at 10 a.m. when Deputy Sheriff Wayne Johnson, who had been “accidentally” assigned to Riley’s courtroom for the morning, burst into a rousing a cappella version of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

As the former president judge’s eyes widened in shock, an indecorous crowd of several hundred assembled, posing a conundrum for the judge: Could he hold that many people in contempt? Upon closer scrutiny, he sagely rejected that option. After all, the horde included fellow jurists; his wife Jane; Matthew, the youngest of his three sons, and his daughter-in-law Cynthia.

With mounting evidence that the chief conspirators were members of the Chester County bench, Riley’s decision not to protest proved shrewd. Besides, as his tipstaff Anne Driscoll observed, he seemed genuinely touched by the hastily organized tribute.

His colleagues on the bench said they felt strongly that Riley’s assertive request that he exit quietly needed to be overruled. Two days ago, the idea for an exceedingly lawful flash mob emerged as a way to applaud Riley’s 20 years of service – a judicial career that almost didn’t happen.

President Judge James P. MacElree II (left) approaches retiring Judge Howard F. Riley Jr. after his remarks during the “flash mob.”

Judge Jacqueline Cody explained that the self-effacing judge, who grew up on a farm, always had a passion for cars and a talent for bowling – two pastimes that both threatened to derail his legal career.  “We’re glad that you came to your senses,” Cody said.

After serving in Vietnam, Riley co-founded Malcolm & Riley, which was intended as a small legal practice but didn’t stay that way. He joined the bench in 1992, after having turned down lucrative offers to join Philadelphia firms in favor of “making a difference” in Chester County, Cody said.

“You are a fine Judge and we will miss you and your leadership more than you can know,” said President Judge James P. MacElree II.  “Your hard work and dedication to the law has been an inspiration for all of us. Don’t be surprised if you keep getting phone calls for advice on sticky issues.”

Among some of Riley’s more high-profile cases: Frank Thomas Fiascki, a flimflam artist who swindled 23 victims out of almost $2 million; Walter J. Rosengarth, the man who shot deputy sheriffs assigned to evict him and was later linked by Riley’s discerning administrative assistant, Hilarie Showalter, to the Miles and Mary Warner homicide in Chadds Ford; Charmella Morris, 32, who enlisted her teenage lover – the two met at her workplace, a treatment center for juvenile sex offenders – to hide evidence that she murdered  her husband; and William Bresnahan, a former Philadelphia police officer who boasted about his 911 heroics and bilked a nonprofit ministry he created out of hundreds of thousands.

Numerous other cases did not generate national headlines but typified Riley’s style of justice: common sense leavened with candor and compassion. For example, when two teens who kidnapped and raped a 15-year-old girl appeared before him, Judge Riley thought the proposed 3 1/2- to 7-year prison term was too light. Yet after hearing that the victim wanted to be spared the ordeal of a trial, he reluctantly accepted the plea bargain.

But he was not a pushover. He bristled when a defense attorney suggested that a lawyer who stole from his clients should not be punished more harshly because of his profession. “I beg to disagree,” the judge said, imposing a stiffer penalty.

And when a man caught dodging jury duty came before Riley, he was sentenced to “the chair,” specifically one placed outside the sheriff’s office so the miscreant could sit under supervision and reflect on his woeful transgression.

At the conclusion of  Friday’s program, Riley, who reached the mandatory retirement age of 70,  thanked members of the audience for their support and said he was looking forward to seeing them as he begins the next phase of his life, which he said remains uncharted.  “I’m going to try and figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up,” he said.

 

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