Published October 24, 1997
A federal appeals court has upheld the case-fixing convictions of an Allegheny County district justice, his tipstaff, and a court supervisor who sometimes granted requests to rig cases for guilty verdicts in traffic offenses and other minor crimes.
But the three were cleared of mail fraud charges in connection with the cases in which they allegedly doled out acquittals as favors, sometimes in exchange for gifts.
A unanimous three-judge panel found that all three men — former District Justice Jules Melograne, tipstaff Nunzio Melograne, and Walter V. Cross, the supervisor of the Statutory AppealsCourt in Allegheny County — were guilty of criminal civil rights violations in the guilty cases since they had deprived the defendants of their right to a fair trial.
The right to a fair and impartial trial for the resolution of guilt lies at the very heart of the constitutional guarantee of due process, Circuit Judge Walter K. Stapleton wrote.
Stapleton rejected the argument that none of the men was on notice that such a scheme would be a crime since no criminal civil rights case has ever focused on a scheme to improperly influence a decisionmaker.
The civil right allegedly violated is defined in the preexisting case law in a way that gave clear notice that the defendant’s proposed conduct would abridge it, he wrote. A prior conviction on analogous facts is not necessary.
But the appeals panel vacated their convictions on mail fraud charges since the only items mailed were the case disposition sheets announcing the outcome of the case — items that did not further the scheme.
Because mailing of these notices was required by law as an integral and necessary part of the court’s adjudication of cases, and because any deprivation of the honest services of public employees had been completed in each instance before the notice of disposition was mailed, the mailings of notices of case disposition as a matter of law were not in furtherance of the alleged conspiracy, Stapleton wrote.
Evidence in the case showed that from December 1990 through July 1993, Cross and the Melogranes conspired to fix cases coming before the Statutory Appeals Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County.
In statutory appeals, the court exercises de novo review of the decisions of courts of the minor judiciary on matters such as traffic offenses and municipal ordinance violations.
Cross’ court duties included: determining when defendants, attorneys, and witnesses (most often police officers) were present to begin hearings; controlling the order of hearings; and handling requests for postponements.
Nunzio Melograne kept the court calendar, maintained the case files, called the cases, and swore the witnesses.
Prosecutors said Cross and the Melogranes conspired to influence the decisions of the court in a variety of ways. Most frequently, they would utilize their authority to assure resolution of the case in the defendants’ favor.
To do so, Cross would make sure police officer witnesses missed hearings by telling them that they were not needed, asking them to leave, or by calling the hearings early, before the police witnesses had arrived. These tactics led to automatic not-guilty verdicts.
Cross would ask the judge not to rule on certain cases during the hearing, but to take them under advisement. After the hearings had concluded, Cross and Nunzio Melograne would accompany the judge to his chambers and after 15 to 20 minutes they would emerge with several not-guilty verdicts.
FBI surveillance also recorded Cross discussing defendants being found not guilty because Jules wants it, presumably referring to Jules Melograne.
Witnesses reported that they had observed stars, check marks, or notations next to defendants’ names on Cross’s trial calendar before they had appeared; such defendants normally were found not guilty or received reduced sentences at their hearings.
Cross was also observed accepting food, tickets to sporting events, fruit baskets, and other items despite his office’s policy against employees accepting gifts. Witnesses testified that the gifts had been offered in exchange for promises by Cross to reduce or eliminate citations and to influence hearings.
On other occasions, Cross and the Melogranes would work to assure that a case would be decided against the defendant — as the government called them, the to be found guilty cases.
One witness testified that she had overheard Cross telling the judge in one case to find this sucker guilty, and on another occasion, the defendant was found guilty after Cross’s prompting to the judge even though the assistant district attorney at the hearing had attempted to withdraw the charge on the ground that the evidence did not demonstrate a violation.
In yet another case, FBI agents recorded one of Cross’s telephone conversations in which the husband of an accident victim called Cross and asked that the case against the woman who had caused the accident be heard first on its scheduled hearing date.
In the course of their discussion, Cross asked, You want her guilty, right? and after the caller replied affirmatively, Cross assured him, Guilty? No problem. Cross later told the victim’s husband that we’ll burn her ass.