Orie Melvin's lawyers lose bid for mistrial, dismissal of charges
February 5, 2013 10:00 AM
Lisa Sasinoski (left)
By Paula Reed Ward Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Defense attorneys for suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin accused the prosecution Monday of eliciting false testimony from one of the key witnesses in the case.
They filed a motion seeking a mistrial for misconduct, as well as the dismissal of charges against their client after they said Lisa Sasinoski, a former law clerk for the justice, testified falsely on Friday.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus denied the motion after the prosecution said it had made a mistake. He did, however, provide a curative instruction to the jury.
During Ms. Sasinoski's direct examination on Friday afternoon, she identified a handwritten note in which Justice Orie Melvin asked her for answers on a questionnaire.
When Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus showed her the document, Ms. Sasinoski answered in the affirmative that the questionnaire was seeking a political endorsement in 2003.
However, according to the defense motion, Mr. Claus showed the witness only the cover page to the document. The underlying pages were an introduction and request for Justice Orie Melvin to attend a professional development seminar for the Pennsylvania Bar Association in 1998.
It had nothing to do with political campaigning.
Justice Orie Melvin is on trial on charges she used her judicial staff and that of her sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to campaign for her while on state time.
During cross-examination on Monday, defense attorney Patrick Casey repeatedly asked Ms. Sasinoski about her characterization of the document.
"It's a letter from the judge to me to fill out one more set of questions like so many others," she answered.
Finally Mr. Casey said, "In reality, you were trying to hurt her."
Ms. Sasinoski was not permitted to answer the question and, instead, Judge Nauhaus chastised Mr. Casey, emphasizing the need to "tone it down."
After several more exchanges, Ms. Sasinoski finally responded, "I was mistaken" with regard to her testimony on Friday.
The witness and the defense were split on a number of issues that came up during cross.
Ms. Sasinoski testified that Justice Orie Melvin fired her on Dec. 10, 2003, after the woman told her boss two days earlier that she would no longer participate in political work.
But Mr. Casey asked, instead, if Ms. Sasinoski didn't quit with an offer in hand to take a job working with state Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, who defeated Justice Orie Melvin for the high court seat in 2003.
"That couldn't be further from the truth," she answered.
Ms. Sasinoski, who received immunity for her testimony, said she believed that Justice Orie Melvin took her off the state judiciary payroll so that her time of service before joining Justice Baer's staff would be interrupted, and she would therefore be unable to vest in her pension at 20 years of service.
"This was her one last shot at me," she said.
Also testifying Monday was Molly Creenan, another law clerk for then-state Superior Court Judge Orie Melvin.
She worked for the judge from 1998 to 2009. She told the jury that she was uncomfortable with all the political work that had occurred in the judicial chambers for the 2003 Supreme Court race.
When Ms. Creenan learned Judge Orie Melvin was running again in 2009, she went in to speak with her boss.
"I congratulated her on her decision to run. I told her I had some concerns, and what happened in 2003 can't happen in 2009," Ms. Creenan said.
Judge Orie Melvin asked Ms. Creenan if she would help with the campaign on her own time, and the woman refused.
"I told her if there was ever an investigation into our office, I would tell the truth," Ms. Creenan said. "After that conversation with the judge, I was not spoken to for a very long time.