On September 29, 2007, police in Lancaster, Pennsylvania arrested 27-year-old James Bell Jr. on charges of possession of cocaine, possession of drug paraphernalia and tampering with evidence.
Lancaster County Sheriff Deputy Christopher Leppler said he and other deputies were serving a domestic relations warrant in the 100 block of South Queen Street when he saw Bell for a brief moment behind the door to the building at 140 South Queen Street and thought that Bell was ducking his head as if to hide.
Leppler and some deputies went to investigate Bell while other deputies went to a different address with the warrant. Leppler said that he and another deputy, Joseph Wilcox, stopped Bell on the steps outside the vestibule. Inside the vestibule, Wilcox said he found a baseball cap with 16 baggies of crack cocaine as well as some empty baggies. Next to the cap, according to Wilcox, was a prepaid cell phone, a cell phone charger and a set of car keys that belonged to Bell, who was then arrested.
Bell’s family hired attorney Kenneth Reidenbach to defend him. However, Reidenbach assigned an associate in the firm, Steven Nierenberg, to handle the case. Reidenbach would later be convicted of bankruptcy fraud and sentenced to prison.
Bell told Nierenberg that the police had framed him. He said he had gone to 140 South Queen Street to retrieve a cell phone from an acquaintance named Jose and to return a hat, a prepaid cell phone and a cell phone charger, all of which belonged to Jose. Bell said he saw a number of police in the area and that Jose opened the locked front door to the building and handed Bell the cell phone, but, after seeing police on the street, abruptly closed the door before Bell could hand him the hat, prepaid cell phone and phone charger.
Bell said that as he turned to leave, he was stopped by a police officer who took his keys, the cell phones, cell phone charger and the hat. The officer then attempted to open the door to the vestibule with Bell’s keys. When the keys did not open the door, Bell said the officer banged on the door until a man came to the door from the inside and opened it. The officers went into the vestibule. When they came out, they said they had the other man in custody and said they had found the drugs, the hat, the prepaid cell phone, the phone charger and Bell’s keys in the vestibule. Bell said he and the other man were arrested.
Nierenberg would later testify that he did not investigate Bell’s claim because he didn't have funds for an investigator, he thought the existence of another person arrested with Bell was irrelevant and he didn't understand that the person had been arrested at the same building where Bell was arrested.
Bell went on trial in November 2008. Leppler and Wilcox testified that Bell was in the vestibule and that his belongings were next to the baseball cap. Officer Jose DeLatorre testified that only Bell was taken to the station—that no one else was arrested.
Bell testified to his version of events and said that the man he was arrested with was a white man named “Joe” who was about 37 years old.
On November 12, 2008, Bell was convicted of all the charges. He was sentenced to two to five years in prison.
Bell was released from prison in September 2010. In 2011, Lancaster County Senior Assistant Public Defender Mary Jean Glick re-investigated the case and filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial.
Glick found records that show that at the same time that Bell was arrested, a man named Joe Greener (who had since died) was also arrested at 140 South Queen Street. The man fit the description that Bell had given of the man he said was transported to the police station with him.
In May 2012, a hearing was held on the petition at which the arresting officers—Leppler and DeLatorre—changed their testimony and said the arrest had actually occurred at 136 South Queen Street—not at 140 South Queen Street. Wilcox still maintained that the arrest and confiscation of the drugs occurred at the 140 address.
The defense, however, showed that there were many police records showing the address of the arrest was 140 South Queen Street.
The defense argued that had Bell’s trial lawyer investigated the case, he would have discovered the existence of Joe Greener and been able to unravel the truth. The defense argued that the arrest of Greener would have supported Bell’s claim that Greener opened the door for the officer and contradicted the police account of the incident.
The trial judge denied the petition for a new trial. Glick appealed the denial, and on November 12, 2013, the Pennsylvania Superior Court vacated Bell’s conviction. The court held that Bell’s lawyer had provided a constitutionally inadequate defense by failing to investigate the case.
On June 3, 2014, the prosecution dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley