The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

January 5, 2012

Suspect has mouth taped shut in court

EBENSBURG —  A Johnstown man who was scheduled to go on trial for assaulting a prison guard became so disruptive during jury selection on Thursday that the judge had the man’s mouth briefly taped shut and his hands handcuffed to a belt around his waist.

But Erik Britt continued to attempt to mouth words and interrupt proceedings.

Judge Timothy Creany finally called off any attempt to choose a jury. Creany continued the case until March and ordered a mental-health exam of the defendant.

While Britt continued to shout about his rights being violated, deputies took him out a rear door of the courtroom.

As he was being taken out the front door of the courthouse, he kicked out a lower panel on one of the inner front doors, Sheriff Bob Kolar said.

Britt, 27, son of former Johnstown Councilman Leonard “Benny” Britt, is charged with punching and elbowing a corrections officer when he was returned to the county prison on May 4 from a magistrate’s hearing, Assistant District Attorney Gary Jubas said.

In an unrelated case, Britt also is awaiting trial on theft and receiving stolen property for allegedly stealing his father’s car on April 16, Jubas said.

From the time the panel of about 40 potential jurors entered the courtroom, Britt became unruly and disruptive.

The defendant complained loudly about only white people being on the panel. He lashed out about deputies being racist.

“Nobody else is black. This is embarrassing to me and my country,” Britt said.

Twice, the judge had the potential jurors taken out of the courtroom as he attempted to get Britt to be quiet and orderly during the jury selection.

Britt, who was acting as his own attorney, said at times, “You’re hindering my freedom of speech.”

When the panel again was taken out, one of the deputies wrapped a heavy, red tape across Britt’s mouth and around his head. But that still didn’t silence him as he continued to mouth loud noises through the tape.

Finally, Creany sent the prospective jurors out again and ordered the deputies, “Remove him from the courtroom and take him back to the prison.”

As the startled potential jurors were brought back into the courtroom to be dismissed, the judge told them, “Mr. Britt and I don’t see eye to eye on how to proceed. This case has been continued since last May, and certainly, he has a right to his day in court. But I was unable to get him to cooperate. I felt it was prudent to end the proceedings because his conduct made it difficult for a jury to look favorably on his case.”

Neither Jubas nor Johnstown attorney Art McQuillen – who was standby legal counsel for Britt – objected. They agreed that the judge has the right to control the proceedings.

Kolar said afterward that there have been a few similar instances, but it’s “very infrequent when we have to tape defendants’ mouths or handcuff them in the courtroom.”

The sheriff said that Britt will be charged with criminal mischief for kicking the door and with terroristic threats and disorderly conduct for threatening deputies.

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