Corruption trial of Justice Melvin begins
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Dan Brier stood behind his client, grasping her shoulders, and faced the jury.
"Joan Orie Melvin is innocent," he declared, still holding on. "We have been waiting a long time to say that. And I'm going to say it again.
"Joan Orie Melvin is innocent."
And so began the opening statement for the suspended state Supreme Court justice whose criminal trial opened Friday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.
Justice Melvin is charged with seven counts, including official oppression, theft of services and conspiracy. Prosecutors say she used her judicial staff, as well as the legislative staff of her sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to run for the high court in 2003 and 2009.
Also being tried in the case is another sister, Janine Orie, who worked as the justice's administrative assistant. She is charged with six counts. Jane Orie, who went on trial last year, was found guilty on 14 of 24 counts against her and is serving a 21/2- to 10-year prison term.
Mr. Brier spent a great deal of his 36-minute opening statement asking the jurors to stay focused on what he continually referred to as "the north star -- hard work and respect for the law."
"I urge you, pay attention to the evidence, because, today, ladies and gentlemen, the silence ends and the truth begins."
While acknowledging that Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus would show the jurors "many, many, many, many emails," Mr. Brier asked that they look at his client's hard work and respect for the law.
"In the two years the commonwealth wants to focus on, my client issued more decisions than most of the judges on the Superior Court of Pennsylvania," he said.
Her average there was 237 per year. In 2003, she issued 235. In 2009, she issued 259.
"I submit that's the evidence," Mr. Brier said. "The work got done."
He also noted that the cost of running then-Superior Court Judge Melvin's chambers in her election years was lower than in years she was not running for the high court.
Mr. Brier told the jury that his client had a full-time campaign coordinator in 2003, as well as a professional fundraiser. In 2009, she hired a top Republican campaign organizer and a professional fundraiser.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party spent a lot of money on the race in 2009, Mr. Brier said.
"The political control of the highest court in the commonwealth was at stake in this race," he said. "The evidence will show the professional campaign people ran the campaigns in 2003 and 2009."
As far as the prosecution's claims that Justice Melvin's chief law clerk, Lisa Sasinoski, was fired after saying she didn't want to participate in political activity, Mr. Brier dismissed that.
Instead, he said, the woman voluntarily left her job when Max Baer won the seat on the state Supreme Court in 2003.
Mr. Brier also addressed one of the key witnesses in the case against his client. Jamie Pavlot, who Mr. Claus said is expected to appear early in the trial, will testify under a grant of immunity from the prosecution.
She served as Jane Orie's chief of staff and began cooperating with the DA's office within weeks of the start of the investigation in October 2009.
Mr. Brier asked the jury to pay special attention to Ms. Pavlot's testimony -- particularly a phone call she said she received in early November 2009.
Ms. Pavlot had testified a number of times throughout the investigation and never before mentioned receiving a call from Justice Melvin and Jane Orie, in which she said they told her to get rid of evidence.
During Jane Orie's trial in the spring, Ms. Pavlot remembered having gotten the call when she was on redirect examination with Mr. Claus.
Attorneys for Justice Melvin used that portion of her testimony as a basis for a motion they filed in federal court earlier this month seeking the name of a woman who filed a civil lawsuit there. The lawsuit, originally filed under the name "Jane Doe," included allegations of emotional distress and mental anguish.
On Friday, Chief U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster unsealed those records, revealing Ms. Pavlot as the woman who filed suit.
Attorneys for the justice wrote in the filing that the woman's allegations in the lawsuit "regarding her compromised health and state of mind during 2009 have direct bearing upon her testimony against Justice Orie Melvin."
They went on to say that they believe that the allegations in the lawsuit coupled with Ms. Pavlot's testimony at Justice Melvin's preliminary hearing are contradictory.
James DePasquale, who represents Janine Orie, told the jurors in his opening that his client worked hard in her position for Justice Melvin.
"How did she do it if she was a political operative in 2003 and 2009 running Joan Orie Melvin's campaigns?" he asked. "There's a theft ring basically going on in Joan Orie Melvin's office in 2003 and 2009, but everybody's doing their work, including Janine Orie. Does that make any sense?"
During his opening statement, Mr. Claus spent 31 minutes outlining the evidence he plans to present.
He told the jury he expected to call at least 14 witnesses, including a number of staffers for both Justice Melvin and Jane Orie.
"[They] were there to work for the citizens of the commonwealth, the taxpayers who were paying them," Mr. Claus said.
Instead, he continued, they worked to advance Justice Melvin's political and judicial ambitions.
One law clerk who told Justice Melvin she would not do political work for her was ostracized, Mr. Claus said.
"She was given the quiet treatment for over six months."
First Published January 26, 2013 12:00 am