Suspended Somerset DA's sexual assault trial continued to 2023

·3 min read

Aug. 26—SOMERSET — Suspended District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas' trial on sexual assault charges has been continued to 2023.

Court-appointed senior Judge Timothy Creany granted Thomas' attorneys' motion to delay the case until Jan. 9, granting them time to obtain an expert medical report they said will be "essential" to defending him in court.

Attorneys Ryan Tutera and Eric Jackson Lurie did not go into detail in court Friday about the specifics of the medical review.

But in a previous motion, the pair wrote that recent information provided to them was reviewed by independent doctors who agreed a specialized "expert" witness was needed to testify about the matter.

Lurie also noted the delay will also help because a separate witness for their defense will be traveling overseas due to a sudden death in that person's family.

Attorneys from the state Office of the Attorney General who are prosecuting sexual assault and strangulation charges against Thomas told the judge Friday they had no objection to defense attorneys receiving more time.

State rules on criminal procedure dictate that a case against a defendant must go to trial within a year of the date charges were filed — in this case, by September. But the defense's approved request for a continuance enabled the delay to occur.

Last fall, state police charged Thomas with felony sexual assault and other offenses, saying he entering an acquaintance's Windber home, despite warnings to stay away.

Police said he strangled and sexually assaulted the woman before she was able to escape his grasp — and only agreed to leave after she promised not to contact the police.

Thomas has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges and has said he plans to defend himself in trial.

Thomas was elected as Somerset County's District Attorney in 2019 but cannot oversee the office or operate as an attorney due to a state law and the fact his law license is suspended indefinitely.

His pay was also suspended by Somerset County's Salary Board last fall.

Creany said Friday he was already taking steps to prepare for Thomas' trial, with initial questionnaires already sent to 200 potential jurors about the possibility of serving on the case.

That step will now have to be conducted again in early November as a preliminary step toward seating a panel of 12 jurors in January, he said.

The delay also means that, barring a resolution to the case prior to trial, the Thomas case would linger into the election year for his county District Attorney's Office seat.

Creany also set a conference in September to review excerpts from 800 pages of text messages the Attorney General's Office looked through during its investigation.

Their review included messages sent between Thomas and the alleged victim — and conversations sent from the woman's phone to other people.

Prosecutors have already turned over that information to defense attorneys — including all messages between the woman and Thomas and any messages referencing him to other people, as well as other messages, Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Schulte said.

But certain redacted messages were questioned Friday, with Lurie asking to review them based on the belief the woman could be "talking in code" about details related to the case.

Prosecutors dismissed the idea, saying only private information — such as medical information or a social security number — has been redacted and should remain that way for privacy reasons.

Creany indicated he will review the conversations in question and listen to each side's arguments before deciding whether those messages are relevant.