Schenectady County

Judge questions defendant, takes plea over the phone

Sworn in, the defendant answered a list of questions from the Schenectady County Court judge.

Sworn in, the defendant answered a list of questions from the Schenectady County Court judge.

The defendant was pleading guilty Friday to a misdemeanor count of petty larceny on accusations she illegally took and used a debit card.

Among the routine questions was whether the defendant understood her rights, including the right to be present for all court proceedings.

That question was more important than most, because defendant Angela Brownrigg was not in the courtroom.

In an unusual step, Judge Karen Drago allowed the proceedings to be held by phone on doctor’s orders. The case had been delayed for two years after Brownrigg contracted a particularly contagious form of MRSA, or staph infection.

“We just don’t see any time in the near future, or even down the road, that you will be well enough to come into a public building,” Drago said during the proceedings.

And so, Drago was at the bench, prosecutor William Sanderson stood near the witness stand, and defense attorney Joseph Litz was nearby. The three encircled Drago’s desk phone, which was on speaker mode.

The clerk swore her in. At one point, Drago asked Brownrigg if she had any questions for her attorney. The line would be taken off speakerphone for a private conversation with Litz if Brownrigg had any questions, Drago offered. Brownrigg indicated she had no questions.

Brownrigg, 33, of Scotia, then pleaded guilty to petty larceny and was sentenced to time served.

She was originally charged in January 2007, accused of using her boyfriend’s mothers’ debit card to make two withdrawals from an ATM, taking just over $700, Sanderson said later.

She was indicted six months later, but when it came time for pretrial hearings in late 2007, Brownrigg had fallen ill, Sanderson said.

The case kept getting delayed until finally a plea deal was negotiated that satisfied prosecutors and victims. Brownrigg agreed to pay just over $2,000 in restitution for the petty larceny and another uncharged crime.

Sanderson conceded the method of resolution was unusual.

“I’ve never had a case where a defendant couldn’t enter the county courthouse,” Sanderson said, “I’ve never heard of a case like that, in this county anyway.”

MRSA is a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics, according to the state Health Department. It is generally spread through direct contact.

Individual cases generally are not reported to county health officials, a county spokesman said, only outbreaks. County health officials have reported no outbreaks so far this year, spokesman Joe McQueen said Friday.

Brownrigg’s attorney Litz said his client continues treatment.

“It’s an unfortunate situation, but she has been dealing with it as best she can,” Litz said.

When the proceedings were over, Drago reiterated why such unusual steps were taken, that she could not jeopardize the welfare of anyone in the building.

“I hope you feel better,” Drago added.

“Thank you so much, your honor,” Brownrigg responded.

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