Michelle Batt

Michelle Batt, shown in this November 2019 file photo, is president of the Lancaster Bail Fund.

Lancaster County’s prison board members and the warden ripped into Lancaster Bail Fund’s president, saying she put out inaccurate information about a man who died in a hotel room days after the fund bailed him out earlier this month.

Michelle Batt said at Thursday’s prison board meeting — and posted on social media last week — that the man, John Choma, 66, had been jailed because he couldn’t post $5,000 bail on a charge for allegedly stealing $28 worth of items from a Sheetz.

“He had been in jail anywhere from 48 to 36 hours and was not getting his medication. This gentleman had a lot of pre-existing conditions and chronic illnesses,” Batt said.

She called for an investigation.

“Because when you do have bail practices such as we have now and someone's snatched out of their lives entirely, you can't make plans for bringing in your medications …” Batt said. “And so five days later, he was dead.”

Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni told LNP | LancasterOnline later on Thursday that investigators determined without needing to do an autopsy that Choma died of upper gastrointestinal bleeding.

Choma was given his medications at the prison and was not simply jailed for retail theft, according to President Judge David Ashworth, Warden Cheryl Steberger and County Commissioner Josh Parsons.

“This was not just a $28 matter at the Sheetz. This is a longstanding history of failure to appear,” Ashworth said.

He said Choma had eight outstanding warrants: Five for failure to make payments related to prior cases and three for failing to appear. 

Steberger became visibly upset when she took the lectern to respond to Batt.

“To publicly stand up and blame my staff who so desperately worked so hard at this. You're blaming me? … To blame me for a death that occurred outside of my facility days after being released? I don't even know how to respond to it. I don't even know if it deserves a response,” Steberger said. She also said Choma was only in the jail for 30 hours, not 36 to 48.

Batt apologized.

“I should have started out with a strong statement that this is in no way a reflection on you or the jail,” she said, trying to explain that bail is a system problem. She also said she did not anticipate the board being aware of what happened and wanted to bring it to their attention.

Parsons read the bail fund’s Facebook post  about Choma, then noted it neglected to include other reasons for Choma’s incarceration.

“There is a rational place for rational conversations about who should be in prison and who shouldn’t, but when you throw information out like this that is so inaccurate that it can really only be described as lying, you are not helping the community and you’re not helping this conversation,” Parsons said.

Batt founded the bail fund in July after spending five years in the county’s public defender’s office. She said she wanted to combat the inequity she sees in the system.

Choma was the 10th person the fund has bailed out. Batt herself picked him up on Feb. 2, drove him to a drugstore to get medication and then took him to a motel he’d been staying at. He died Feb. 8.

Ashworth, in his comments, said it was “inappropriate to take federal issues that may exist or issues that may exist elsewhere and apply them to Lancaster County without looking at the specifics.”

And sometimes jail is the best place for a person in trouble, Ashworth said. 

“And the prison, because of the short period of time (Choma was in jail) never had an opportunity to provide the services that this man desperately needed. And he needed help. And there's no doubt about that,” Ashworth said.

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