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Melvin to soon learn fate

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By Jeremy Boren, Bobby Kerlik and Brad Bumsted
Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 9:34 p.m.

An Allegheny County grand jury investigating state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin will hear testimony this morning as a deadline on recommending charges nears.

The grand jury's two-year term expires by the end of the month, increasing the likelihood that District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office would decide on charges, legal experts say. A previous grand jury recommended charges against two of Melvin's sisters -- former Melvin aide Janine Orie and Republican state Sen. Jane Orie of McCandless -- for using state staff for political work.

Melvin, 56, of Marshall could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, J. Alan Johnson, and her brother Jack Orie, an attorney who has frequently acted as the family's unofficial spokesman, did not return phone calls.

Melvin received formal notification that she was a target of the grand jury and a subpoena to appear before it in December. It's not clear whether the grand jury heard from Melvin, a former prosecutor and Allegheny County judge who was elected to the high court in 2009.

"One of the things that happens inside of a grand jury is people in a grand jury feel like they want to accomplish something, and they actually put pressure on the lawyers to do something," said Patrick Thomassey, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who is not involved in the case. "Grand juries themselves feel like they want to finish what they started."

Zappala spokesman Mike Manko declined to comment.

The district attorney charged Melvin's sisters in April 2010, accusing them of using Jane Orie's staff to perform campaign work. A jury in March convicted Orie, 50, of 14 charges, and she is expected to resign her seat by Monday. Janine Orie, 57, is awaiting trial.

The Ories have accused Zappala, a Democrat whose father is a former Supreme Court chief justice, of playing politics with the prosecution. Zappala has denied that.

University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff believes Melvin will be charged because of evidence prosecutors aired.

"Based on everything contained in the presentment relating to her sister, Janine, it's surprising she hasn't been indicted already," he said.

Former Melvin law clerk Lisa Sasinoski testified in December at a preliminary hearing against Janine Orie that she did political work on state time, including working the polls on Election Day and writing speeches. A grand jury report against Orie mentioned Melvin's name more than her sister's and painted a picture of a judicial office immersed in partisan politics for almost two decades.

Sasinoski's attorney, Charles Porter, would not say whether his client testified before the grand jury investigating Melvin.

Critics called on Melvin to step down in recent months. She has recused herself from hearing appeals involving Allegheny County cases.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, who called for Melvin to resign, said he expects action soon because of the grand jury's expiration.

"Justice Orie Melvin was essentially an unindicted co-conspirator, as I read (Janine Orie's presentment)," Ledewitz said. "I'd say if there's no presentment by the end of the month, she's not going to be indicted."

Attorney Martin Dietz, who is not involved in the case, does not expect prosecutors to take the case to another grand jury.

"They don't often do that unless new evidence comes to light," Dietz said. "This investigation has gone on so long, I think it's unlikely they'd do that in this case."

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