Justice Orie Melvin, sister found guilty

Jury finds that pair used state workers to run campaigns

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No one spoke to the media.

No one said whether there would be appeals.

Instead, all of the members of the Orie Melvin camp -- including suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and three defense attorneys -- left the courthouse under escort from deputies with the Allegheny County sheriff's office.

Justice Orie Melvin and Janine Orie, her sister and former administrative aide, were found guilty Thursday of corruption for misusing state-paid staffers to help run the justice's Supreme Court campaigns in 2003 and 2009.

The sisters were found guilty of theft of services, conspiracy, and misapplication of government funds. Janine Orie was also convicted of tampering with evidence and solicitation.

One count -- official oppression against the justice for terminating her chief law clerk for failing to do political work -- could not be decided by the jury, which heard defense witnesses testify that the clerk left voluntarily. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus declared the jurors hung on that count.

He did not set a date for sentencing but did order a pre-sentence report for both women.

In the meantime, Justice Orie Melvin, 56, will remain suspended without pay from the court pending further action by the Court of Judicial Discipline.

"This jury, having sat in a court of law, heard the truth about the defendant's conduct and has made it absolutely clear that no one is above the law irrespective of title or status," said Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Gov. Tom Corbett's statement echoed that sentiment.

"The conviction of Justice Melvin shows that no public official is above the law," he said.

The jury of nine women and three men announced that it had a question about 11:45 a.m., but Judge Nauhaus said he wouldn't convene court until 1:15. At that point, it was announced that the panel had reached a verdict on all counts except one.

As foreman Matt Mabon read the charges, "theft of services, greater than $2,000 -- guilty," Patrick Casey, one of the attorneys representing the justice, appeared to steady her, grasping her elbow.

He held on throughout the reading of all seven counts for Justice Orie Melvin: Guilty of two more counts of theft of services. Guilty of two counts of conspiracy. Guilty of misapplication of entrusted property.

And as the charges against Janine Orie, 58, were read: Guilty of conspiracy. Guilty of two counts of theft of services. Guilty of misapplication of entrusted funds. Guilty of tampering with evidence. Guilty of solicitation.

There was no visible reaction from either defendant.

After the case recessed, the group of lawyers and defendants remained in the courtroom for several minutes, and deputies were ordered to clear the hallway outside.

They then filed out of the courtroom, leaving the courthouse through a basement exit, to a black Land Rover parked outside the courtyard.

Justice Orie Melvin, Ms. Orie and the justice's daughter, Casey Melvin, left in the SUV, along with attorney Dan Brier. Mr. Casey and another lawyer, Donna Walsh, declined comment and left on foot.

Mr. Brier, when reached Thursday evening, said he would not comment about any potential appeal.

"We are very disappointed in the jury's verdict and deeply saddened for the Orie and Orie Melvin families," he said.

James DePasquale, who represented Janine Orie, said he believed there were at least two issues on which he could appeal, including a jury instruction given by Judge Nauhaus regarding accomplice liability that was not originally requested by the prosecution.

He described his client as "devastated."

"She's had this hanging over her head for 31/4 years," Mr. DePasquale said.

Although he didn't provide a specific timeline, he said his client's sentencing guidelines would allow for probation, which he will request.

University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said he believes both women will face some incarceration, especially in light of the 21/2- to 10-year prison term being served by another sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, for related charges.

"I don't know how the judge could ignore it," he said. "I think they're going to get jail time."

Mr. Burkoff was not sure there would be a conviction, noting that he thought Justice Orie Melvin's defense counsel did a good job.

"But there's a difference between doing a good job and the truth," he said. "And the jury decided the truth was both sisters violated the public trust.

"I think this shows nobody is above the law. Not even the Orie sisters."

The jury foreman said that the panel finished deliberating the counts for Janine Orie on Wednesday. It was only count No. 6 against Justice Orie Melvin that had the panel stuck.

When the foreman turned over the verdict slip, he told the court the panel could not reach a decision on official oppression.

"You tried very hard?" Judge Nauhaus asked.

"Yes, sir," Mr. Mabon responded.

Satisfied, Judge Nauhaus marked that count as hung -- over a previously raised objection by Mr. Casey.

Later, Mr. Mabon said the jurors were hung because of conflicting testimony. The prosecution said Justice Orie Melvin's law clerk, Lisa Sasinoski, was fired in 2003 for saying she would no longer do political work. But the defense argued that she resigned to work for the justice's opponent in that year's race, Max Baer, who won the seat on the high court.

After the verdict was announced, the defense requested the individual jurors be polled to ensure they agreed with the verdict.

When juror No. 6 stood up, she was crying as she answered "Yes" to the question.

"Today was the only time there was true emotion in this case," Mr. Mabon said. "Honestly, I think we were tired. We're tired."

The four days of deliberations were used to sift through the evidence presented, Mr. Mabon said, noting that "there was a lot more direct evidence against Janine than the justice."

The word "acquittal" was never spoken in the jury room, he said.

"Actually, we never even talked about that."


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published February 22, 2013 5:00 AM


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