Short-handed Northampton County DA faces an enormous backlog of cases
EASTON, Pa. — The case file of Giuseppe Rizzolino sits at the foot of a spare chair in Northampton County District Attorney Stephen Baratta's office. The former Easton Area High School wrestling star is accused of stabbing his father, who died four months after the attack outside his Palmer Township home.
It's one of a dozen Northampton County homicide cases scheduled between now and June, and Baratta is trying it himself. While some district attorneys avoid personally trying cases, Baratta promised on the campaign trail last year he wouldn't just be a pencil pusher behind a desk. But taking on the case is more than fulfilling a pledge at this point; it's a matter of necessity.
Almost a month into his tenure, Baratta's office is undermanned. The bullpen that once brimmed with support staff, detectives and young prosecutors is now a collection of empty desks. At least five unit chiefs left the office during the final months of former District Attorney Terry Houck's tenure, and Baratta said he terminated two assistant district attorneys and two detectives upon taking office. Other lawyers have since accepted jobs elsewhere, he said.
"I likely won't have a full roster even by the end of the year, although I'd like to be close to fully staffed. But that's not going to stop us," Baratta said. "I have a sufficient amount of firepower to get to these cases and to start getting through the inventory."
His limited team doesn't lack for experience. Baratta served as a county judge for 25 years before taking the unusual step of resigning from the bench to run for a job with less pay and authority.
His first assistant district attorney is Robert Eyer, a former chief public defender who prosecuted high-profile cases under former District Attorney John Morganelli.
Several seasoned prosecutors who worked for former Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin are now in the office, including Jeff Dimmig and Matt Falk. Bill Blake and Joe Lupackino, holdovers from the Morganelli and Houck administrations, remain on the job.
"I don't know what they were doing. ... We want to cut through the backlog because it interferes with our ability to stay current with the new cases that come in."Northampton County District Attorney Stephen Baratta on thousands of pending cases he inherited upon taking office this month
But they'll have their arms full as they attack a mountain of backlogged cases. Leonard Zito, a retired judge now working as Baratta's chief of staff, said a 2023 report found there were 2,900 pending criminal cases in the county — matters that had been assigned to a judge but not yet resolved. For comparison, about 4,000 cases enter the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas every year. Before he retired as administrative judge a decade ago, Zito said, the county usually had between 50 and 100 pending cases at any given time.
"I don't know what they were doing," Baratta said of the Houck administration, whom he accused of mismanagement during an attack-filled campaign. "We want to cut through the backlog because it interferes with our ability to stay current with the new cases that come in."
At this point, Baratta said, there's nothing left to do but roll up their sleeves and get to work. In most cases, that will mean negotiating plea deals for less serious cases. The vast majority of matters that wind up in criminal court aren't what Baratta considers serious crimes. The office, he said, can't afford to be bogged down on minor charges when prosecutors ought to be focused on cases such as sexual assaults, robberies and homicides.
"Getting the predators, the people who hurt other people, I want to focus on that," Baratta said. "Who cares if there's a retail theft that we try to convict and someone gets sent to jail for a month or two? … One month or two in jail doesn't help anybody. We don't have any programming in [county] prison anyway. The person is pulled away from their family. Lose their job, might lose their apartment then, and the family's homeless. For what, a two month sentence? How does that help us? That's not protecting the community."
Eventually, the goal will be to bring in younger attorneys to handle the lower-level crimes so more experienced prosecutors can take the lead on the major cases. But just as employers in more typical lines of work have struggled to find qualified workers, Baratta said it's been hard to find new hires.
He hopes that he'll be able to bring in young attorneys looking to develop as litigators. Criminal prosecutors need to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt to earn a conviction, the highest standard under the law, he noted. Even attorneys who ultimately want to practice civil law would do well to cut their teeth as prosecutors, he said. To help them grow their skills, he said, he plans to run a mentorship program within the office and provide continued education courses where attorneys can earn credits.
One thing he won't tolerate, he said, are lawyers who will merely handle motions and keep the case moving through the system without the skills to see it through to the end.
"I expect everyone in my office to be able to walk into a courtroom and try a case," Baratta said.
After all, there's a lot of work to be done.