There was a flurry of activity late last week as lawyers looked to tailor the scope of the highly anticipated trial against suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.
Last Thursday, prosecutors filed a motion to shape just what the jury will hear at the trial, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday. And by Friday afternoon, the defense was working to get in its own filing and respond to requests by prosecutors to limit what Orie Melvin can argue at trial.
Orie Melvin is charged with using her staff and that of her former state senator sister, Jane Orie, to work on Orie Melvin’s 2003 and 2009 races for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is looking to bar Orie Melvin from, among other things, introducing evidence that his prosecution of the justice is based on an "improper motive" or "prosecutorial bias." Ever since charges were filed against Orie Melvin’s sisters, Jane and Janine Orie, the Orie family and supporters have argued in the press that the charges against the family were driven by longstanding animosity between the Zappala and Orie families. Jane Orie was convicted of 14 of 24 counts in a similar political corruption trial last year. Janine Orie is scheduled to stand trial with Orie Melvin this week.
"These allegations, including statements to the media, have been disparaging to the Office of the District Attorney and to the district attorney himself, and improperly attempt to denigrate the integrity and validity of the prosecution of this case," Zappala said in the state’s motion in limine.
He said the validity of a claim of prosecutorial vindictiveness is a question of law, not fact. Zappala, and Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus, asked Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus to exclude any evidence from Orie Melvin that was disparaging to the District Attorney’s Office, Zappala or Zappala’s family.
The charges against Orie Melvin deal with allegations that she used her staff and state equipment to run her campaigns on the state’s dime. Zappala said in his motion that he anticipates Orie Melvin will seek to enter evidence that she disapproved of the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision to grant the state’s judges pay raises. Orie Melvin took her case up to her future colleagues on the Supreme Court in an effort to get the state to take back the raise she felt was improperly given to her while she was a Superior Court judge. The court ultimately denied her argument, but Orie Melvin had been returning the money to the state’s general fund.
Zappala said Orie Melvin’s position on the pay raise has nothing to do with the charges against her.
"Introduction of this evidence or argument would mislead the jurors and imply that the defendant’s attempt to refuse benefits thereby entitles [Orie Melvin] to the use of judicial and/or Senate employees and/or equipment in an improper manner, or that [Orie Melvin's] acts could somehow excuse blatant acts of criminality," Zappala and Claus said.
On a separate evidentiary issue, the prosecutors asked that certain evidence about the verdict in Jane Orie’s case be excluded. While former Senator Jane Orie had been charged with using her legislative staff to campaign for both herself and Orie Melvin, the jury in Jane Orie’s case found the former senator not guilty on the theft and ethics-related charges involving Orie Melvin’s campaign.
The acquittal of Jane Orie on the charges related to Orie Melvin’s campaigns would not make the facts in Orie Melvin’s trial any more or less probable, the prosecutors argued.
There was a fourth issue raised in the prosecution’s motion in limine — one that relies on what a federal judge rules in a sealed case in Western Pennsylvania involving a woman who sued a man she alleged gave her a sexually transmitted disease during a years-long sexual relationship.
Orie Melvin has filed a motion under seal in that federal case, Jane Doe v. G.L., seeking to make public the identity of the plaintiff. According to publicly available court papers in that case, Orie Melvin argued the woman’s right to privacy is outweighed by Orie Melvin’s right to confront this woman at Orie Melvin’s criminal trial. Who the woman is and what relevance she has to Orie Melvin’s trial remains a mystery. As of press time Friday evening, U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster of the Western District of Pennsylvania had not ruled on Orie Melvin’s motion or on a bid by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to unseal the contents of Orie Melvin’s motion.
Orie Melvin’s attorney, Daniel Brier of Myers, Brier & Kelly in Scranton, declined to comment on the recent filings.