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Cantalamessa faces O'Brien | News, Sports, Jobs – Warren Tribune Chronicle

by Arifa Rana

Apr 17, 2022
WARREN — Dawn Cantalamessa, best known for prosecuting killers in Mahoning County, and Sean O’Brien, best known for his 10 years in the Ohio House and Senate, are squaring off in a race to replace W. Wyatt McKay, who has been a Trumbull County Common Pleas judge for the last 35 years.
Both claim to have the best experience and background, with O’Brien saying his time as a state legislator working with both political parties, his 12 years as assistant Trumbull County prosecutor, seven months as assistant Columbiana County prosecutor and 24 years as private-practice attorney make him the best choice.
But Cantalamessa says her 18 years with Mahoning County, where she was prosecutor in 112 felony jury trials, including 13 death-penalty cases, and her work in the Violence Against Women unit from 2003 to 2008, make her the best candidate.
McKay, who has served since 1987, cannot run for re-election because of the state’s age limit for judges.
The Trumbull County Bar Association selected O’Brien as its “preferred candidate” recently. The bar association did not say what the percentage of the vote O’Brien got, only that he got at least 66.6 percent of the votes because that is the minimum amount needed for someone to be called the preferred candidate, said Mary Mahan, executive director of the bar association. O’Brien said he got 86.7 percent of the vote — 92 votes for him and 14 for Cantalamessa.
Cantalamessa, who lives in Warren, is a relative novice in running for office, but her husband, Enzo Cantalamessa, is Warren’s law director. Her brother-in-law is Mauro Cantalamessa, Trumbull County commissioner. Dawn Cantalamessa’s only previous elected office was as state central committee member, which she had to give up to run for judge.
“I’m the most experienced” in the courtroom, she said in an interview. “I have the most experience in felony court. I’ve done over 110 felony level jury trials. I’m the only one with death-penalty experience, so if those kind of cases were to come up, I’m the only one with experience in how they should proceed to trial and how they should proceed through pretrials” and exchange of pretrial evidence.
Her time in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court has educated her on “all different kinds of rules of evidence,” she said, adding, “I can hit the ground running.”
If elected, she would be the first woman to serve as a judge in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court’s general division, which handles felony criminal and civil cases. Trumbull County had two women Trumbull County Family Court judges at the same time when current Judge Sandra Stabile Harwood and Pam Rintala served, before Rintala retired in 2018 after 24 years on the bench. She was Trumbull County’s first woman judge in 1994.
Family court is a separate division of the common pleas court from the general division.
Cantalamessa said if she is elected common pleas judge and there were a case involving the city of Warren in which her husband were serving as counsel, she would “most likely have to recuse” herself from that case.
But it’s difficult to make a “blanket statement” on whether that would be necessary because “such matters are case and fact specific. Nonetheless, in the interest of avoiding the appearance of an impropriety, I’d more than likely recuse” myself, she said.
She added, however, that criminal cases initiated in Warren by her husband or his attorneys “become the county’s cases after bindover (from municipal court), and no conflict (of interest) exists.”
Among the notable cases Dawn Cantalamessa has prosecuted during her years in Mahoning County was the 2020 murder trial of Brian Donlow Jr. and Stephon Hopkins after they killed a man in the Plaza View apartment complex on the East Side of Youngstown — a killing partially captured on surveillance video. Both were convicted and received life prison sentences.
She also prosecuted Aubrey Toney for killing Thomas Repchic, 74, and injuring his wife, Jacqueline, 74, by shooting into their 1990 Cadillac near St. Dominic Church shortly after Thomas Repchic picked up his wife from the church, where she worked as a secretary. It was a case of mistaken identity. Toney got a life prison sentence.
But last year, Judge John Durkin of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court threw her off a murder case involving defendant Lavontae Knight after the judge found that Cantalamessa displayed a “careless indifference to ascertaining the truth” regarding evidence not turned over timely to the defense. He also said she lied regarding a witness identification.
“To leave this conduct unchecked would undermine the integrity of our system of justice,” the judge said of Cantalamessa’s actions.
Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains placed her on paid administrative leave last summer, after the the judge’s ruling. She now is working as an assistant prosecutor in Ashtabula County after resigning from Mahoning County.
During an interview, Cantalamessa said she had been talking to a top official in the Ashtabula County Prosecutor’s Office as early as February 2021 about making the move there — months prior to Durkin’s ruling.
“I quit (in Mahoning County) because an opportunity presented itself up in Ashtabula,” she said.
As for the judge’s remarks, Cantalamessa said when defense attorney David Betras raised the issues that led to her being kicked off the case, it led to a hearing in open court “where I can’t comment on certain things. In fact I can’t cross examine my own detective about something I know he knew about or emails that happened between each other because I can’t essentially make him look like a liar on the stand because he still has to testify during the trial.”
Cantalamessa said she objected to an issue raised at the hearing, but other assistant prosecutors were in charge of the hearing and the judge would not allow her to speak “because he wanted those two other attorneys to respond. But there was a certain point where I wasn’t allowed to talk to defend myself. I don’t know the reason the judge ruled the way he did,” she said. “I haven’t had my license pulled or anything. Nothing was found on me. I’m still a lawyer in good standing,” she said.
As for the judge’s comment that Cantalamessa lied, she has said repeatedly that the comment the judge found objectionable was her “arguing the evidence.”
The judge found in July 2021 that Cantalamessa made a false statement during a Dec. 3, 2019, hearing regarding whether a co-defendant identified Knight as being the shooter in the killing.
Her statement was not a lie because the identification was “not evidence” at the time, she said. What she did at the hearing was “argue the evidence and not something that was not evidence at the time. There would be no relevance to arguing that or even to bring that forth,” she said.
O’Brien said the episode is a reminder that a prosecutor has “strong powers.”
Cantalamessa stated “clearing any backlog of cases” for McKay’s court would be her first priority, but she said she’s not sure if there is one.
“I don’t know, but with any court right now, because of COVID, I know cases have been kind of delayed,” she said.
“There is always some sort of backlog, whether it’s criminal cases or civil cases. Hopefully my experience will lend a hand in getting those cases resolved, whether it’s going to be a trial or any kind of resolution to just clear any kind of backlog.”
She and O’Brien both said they thought it might be time for Trumbull County to create a mental health court, such as the ones in Mahoning and Ashtabula counties.
“I think it’s worked out well,” Cantalamessa said of such courts. Many defendants are eligible for drug court, a program where a defendant pleads guilty to a drug charge and is allowed to enter a treatment program with the potential to have his or her conviction erased if they complete a treatment program.
But if the person as a “dual diagnosis,” meaning substance-abuse issues and mental-health issues, “treatment centers do not want them,” she said. “So I think a mental health court is really beneficial for those kinds of cases where they have both a mental health issue and a drug addiction or just a mental health issue, where it could help them seek treatment and keep them under a supervision.”
In his interview, O’Brien agreed that such a program might be beneficial in Trumbull County.
A lot of people have mental health issues who “don’t need to be in jail because they’re costing us a lot of money, and they’re not getting the help they need,” he said.
He deals with such people in his role as an assistant prosecutor three days per week in Columbiana County, he said.
“I think we should definitely put away people who are dangerous, who hurt other people. We have to be tough on crime. But drug crime, how do we look at that and differentiate that between that and a burglary? If you are willing to do drugs and break into someone’s house, you need to go to prison,” he said.
“If you’re smoking weed on the side of the street, what can we do to help you there? People are getting hurt, yes, but not physically,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien is in the unusual situation of prosecuting people part of the time as an assistant prosecutor in Columbiana County but also defending criminal defendants at other times. He does defense work with the Fowler, Goodman and O’Brien law firm of Warren.
That is permissible because his prosecutor work is in Columbiana County, which is in the jurisdiction of the 7th District Court of Appeals, and his defense work is in counties such as Trumbull that are in the jurisdiction of the 11th District Court of Appeals.
“But to be honest with you, I don’t do a lot of criminal defense because I’m so busy down there,” O’Brien said of Columbiana County. O’Brien and his family, who formerly lived in Bazetta, now live in Brookfield. It has a Hubbard mailing address. He drives an hour to Columbiana County to prosecute cases in the misdemeanor court in Lisbon, he said. He sometimes also works on felonies in Columbiana County, he said.
“I think I am the better candidate because I think I’m more well rounded. I’ve been practicing (law) for 24 years. I started off my career as an assistant prosecutor under Dennis Watkins in the juvenile division, then I moved up to the common pleas, and then I did juvenile, common pleas and municipal court. I was in court every single day in 2001, 2002.”
He also worked part time as assistant Trumbull County prosecutor from 2002 to 2010. “That gives me my criminal experience,” he said. He was a state representative and state senator for 10 years starting in 2011, ending with a defeat in November 2020 to Sandra O’Brien of Ashtabula County for state senator.
“After serving my 10 years (as state representative and senator), being down there, part of the experience, I’m very grateful for it. I enjoyed it. But when I lost that election (in 2020), part of me (said) ‘Hey, I did the best I could. I think I represented our area well, and I’m ready to move on to the next chapter of my life.”
He was the highest vote getter in Trumbull County with 54.83 percent of the vote. “It was the people in Ashtabula and Geauga (counties) I lost in. I think the people in Trumbull County recognized … who I was and what I meant to the community,” O’Brien said.
“I think it’s time to move my career forward and be a judge, and this is what I’m looking forward to. I have no desire to go to Congress. I have no desire to go back to the Statehouse. This is my home. I’ve always lived here,” he said.
O’Brien said he thinks his experience as a private-practice attorney gives him an advantage over Cantalamessa.
“I would say I’ve had a lot of courtroom experience on the civil side as well as the criminal side. So that makes me more well rounded. She’s fixed on one side — criminal prosecution. I will agree she has done more death penalty cases, because I’ve never done a death penalty case. But I have done murder cases, rape cases. I’ve done everything but a capital case, I think, as a prosecutor.”
When Cantalamessa was asked whether she had ever tried to get a job as a Trumbull County assistant prosecutor, she said it was a possibility around 2009, “but I was the most experienced in Mahoning County. I got to pick and choose my own cases. I got to be on death penalties every single time one came up.
“If I went to Trumbull County, I would go to the bottom of the totem pole, so I might not have had that same experience that I was getting in Mahoning County. I didn’t want to chance it. I was chief trial counsel at that point.”
She said that at the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office, “There were so many older prosecutors there — Chuck Morrow and Chris Becker and Ken Bailey was still there. There was no way I would get to try the same kind of cases there that I would have gotten in Mahoning County.”
She added, “I just want to bring all of my experience to Trumbull County and give each side an opportunity to be heard, whether it’s criminal or civil cases. I think I bring a fresh perspective to being a woman on the general division bench because there’s never been a woman on the bench there.”
“I think having a woman– I don’t know if it will help, but I don’t think it can hurt,” she said.
Dawn Cantalamessa
AGE: 48
OCCUPATION: Seven months, assistant prosecutor, Ashtabula County Prosecutor’s Office, including two months as chief trial counsel; 18 years, assistant prosecutor, Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office.
PREVIOUS ELECTED EXPERIENCE: Former member of state Democratic committee.
EDUCATION: Law degree, Ohio Northern University; bachelor’s degree, University of Akron.
Sean O’Brien
AGE: 53
OCCUPATION: Assistant prosecutor, Columbiana County; private attorney based in Warren
PREVIOUS ELECTED EXPERIENCE: Served three terms in Ohio House and one in Ohio Senate, former member of state Democratic committee.
EDUCATION: Law degree, University of Akron; bachelor’s degree, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
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