Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Corruption Trial of Justice Melvin Begins

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Corruption Trial of Justice Melvin Begins

Article excerpt

Dan Brier stood behind his client, grasping her shoulders, and faced the jury.

"Joan 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 Orie 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 2 1/2- 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 Orie 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 Orie 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. …

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