West Chester >> An ex-convict from Spring City who committed a violent home invasion in West Whiteland in which an elderly woman was thrown to the floor, tied up, and jewelry she was wearing stolen was given a choice by the judge sentencing him this week.
Accept responsibility for the crime you were found guilty of as proof that there is a chance of your rehabilitation, or continue to deny your culpability and face a sentence that focuses exclusively on punishment.
Leonard D. Bernard chose the latter. Common Pleas Judge William P. Mahon kept his promise.
On Wednesday, Mahon — who had presided over Bernard’s trial in February without a jury and who had declared the evidence against him “overwhelming” — sentenced Bernard to a state prison term of 33 to 66 years for the robbery and burglary at the Exton Station townhouse of a then- 76-year-old homeowner who lived alone.
The sentence fell just short of the recommendation of the prosecution, which had called Bernard’s crime “a certain kind of evil” and asked Mahon to impose a maximum prison term for society’s protection.
Mahon sentenced Bernard to consecutive terms of 10 to 20 years in state prison each for robbery, burglary and criminal conspiracy. He added terms of one to two years each for the crimes of recklessly endangering, terroristic threats, and unlawful restraint.
The trial featured the testimony of Bernard’s wife, Brianna Mitchell, a co-conspirator in the case who cooperated with the prosecution. Mitchell, who had worked as a home health care aide for the woman and knew what valuables she had in the house, was also sentenced Wednesday.
Bernard, 37, who represented himself, had argued that authorities had not proven that he was the man who committed the robbery because the victim, who testified at the trial, was not able to give a positive description of the man who forced his way into her home just before Christmas in 2014, and threatened to “cut” her.
At the sentencing hearing, Bernard refused to make a statement to the court, saying that he was planning to appeal the conviction and wanted to preserve his Fifth Amendment right. He was assisted in court Wednesday by Assistant Public Defender P.J. Redmond, who acted as stand-by counsel.
Commenting after the sentencing, Assistant District Attorney Brian Burack, who led the prosecution, praised Mahon’s decision.
“This was a fair and just sentence to take an extremely violent and dangerous criminal off the streets,” Burack said. “Today the community is a little bit safer. We have said it before and will keep saying it until people get the message: if you hurt the elderly you will go to state prison for as long as we can put you there. This kind of evil has no place in Chester County.”
Burack also took time to express gratitude to the police for the investigation that led to Bernard and Mitchell’s apprehension. “The West Whiteland police should be commended for their investigation and for swiftly identifying and apprehending the defendants,” he said.
In asking Mahon to impose a total sentence of 36 to 72 years in a state penitentiary, the prosecution wrote that Bernard was a repeat offender who had shown no signs that he could be rehabilitated. In a sentencing memo, trial prosecutors Burack and Assistant District Attorney Caitlin Rice said that it took, “a certain kind of evil to terrorize the elderly.
“It takes a certain level of criminal culpability to hunt down, tie up and rob a helpless victim. That is what the defendant did,” the memo stated. “This was a violent, terroristic act on a defenseless victim. He targeted her. He chose the victim because she was older, weaker and easier to take from.”
The memo reminded Mahon that Bernard had taken the woman’s wedding ring from her finger, “a ring she wore to remember her late husband.”
The prosecution’s memo also stated that the home invasion had occurred “just months” after Bernard was released from state prison in July 2014 after “maxing out” on a conviction for a 1996 robbery. “This is how he chose to behave,” the memo states. “He wanted to get right back into the business of terrorizing and taking advantage of others — the same behavior that put him in jail so many years ago.”
In her address to Mahon at the hearing, the victim relayed how the robbery left her not only physically injured by psychologically changed.
“I no longer can trust other home health care workers so my life was deteriorated because I didn’t have the help that I so desperately needed in order for me to continue to live independently,” she said, reading from a prepared statement. “A knock on the door, typically a welcoming sound for someone living alone now immediately brings up feelings of fear and concern over my safety in my own house.”
According to court documents, Mitchell worked for a home health care agency, Right at Home, which the victim hired to help her. During October and November of 2014, Mitchell began stealing jewelry and prescription drugs that belonged to the woman. She gave the jewelry to Bernard, who subsequently pawned it.
Mitchell quit her job in November 2014. But she and Bernard continued to discuss the victim and her jewelry, according to court records. On Dec. 20, 2014, Bernard told Mitchell, “I want to get her, I want to get that lady.” Mitchell agreed and drove him to Exton, dropping him off at the Exton Square Mall, near where the woman lived.
Bernard knocked on the woman’s door, pretending to be from the home care agency. When she answered the door, he pushed his way in, threw the woman on a couch, put his forearm on her chest and ripped a necklace from around her neck. He then took the wedding ring and her watch from her, threatening to “cut her” if she did not comply. In discussing the attack, Burack said that the woman had believed that she was going to be killed.
Bernard then told the woman to take him to her “office,” a back room that Mitchell had previously told him was where she kept her jewelry. When he told her to sit down, she said she could not. So he forced her to the ground and bound her hands with a belt.
He took a pillowcase full of items, left the woman bound, and met back up with Mitchell. “I’m about this life,” he told his wife. “She wouldn’t cooperate, so I tagged her on the chin.”
When she reported the crime to West Whiteland Detective Jeffrey McCloskey, the woman told him she suspected that the robbery had been engineered by Mitchell, since the robber knew about the location of her office. Police began trying to contact Mitchell, and eventually tracked the couple down to a motel in Delaware the day after the robbery. They were arrested after a two-hour standoff with police.
When police officers searched their Spring City home, they were able to recover the jewelry worth about $2,000, including the wedding ring. Burack said the items will now be returned to the woman.
Mitchell, because of her cooperation with the prosecution, was given a much less harsh sentence than her husband. But Mahon still sentenced her to four to eight years behind bars, plus probation.
Both Bernard and Mitchell have been held in Chester County Prison since their arrests on Dec. 21, 2014.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.