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Trial to open in corruption case against Melvin and sister, former aide Orie

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin speaks to reporters outside Pittsburgh Municipal Court after a hearing in May on charges she illegally used her state-funded staff to perform campaign work. AP

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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Round two of the politically charged court battle between Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and the Orie family begins on Wednesday with less venom than the first case.

The buildup to the corruption trial of suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister and former aide Janine Orie lacked much of the name-calling and accusations that set the tone during the prosecution of their sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, observers said.

“The super-aggressive stance in the Jane Orie trial, that this was a political vendetta against the Orie family, does not seem to have the same prominent place in this trial,” said David Harris, a criminal law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “That probably signals that the strategy in the justice's trial is going to be somewhat different.”

Lawyers for the prosecution and defense will begin selecting jurors on Wednesday. Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus is presiding. Zappala's office accuses Melvin, 56, a Republican from Marshall, of illegally using her taxpayer-funded staff to campaign for a seat on the high court in 2003 and 2009. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Zappala, a Democrat whose father was a chief justice on the Supreme Court, won a conviction against Jane Orie of McCandless on similar charges despite the Ories accusation that the prosecutor was executing a “mob hit” on them.

“It didn't fly in the senator's case, and it probably won't fly in the justice's case,” Harris said. “To simply say this is one political family against another, that these are all political charges, you've got to show the jury something more.”

The defense team of Patrick A. Casey and Daniel T. Brier of Scranton has “been less vitriolic” in their defense, Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said.

A grand jury report released in May called the charges a “tale of corruption” that Melvin “actively condoned and even promoted.” The report said Melvin and her staff used personal email accounts to shield the addresses that generated messages, hiding political activities that were being handled by the staffers on state payroll.

The Supreme Court in May suspended Melvin. The state Court of Judicial Discipline halted her $195,000 salary in August.

Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless went to trial in a joint case with Jane Orie in 2011, but the case ended in a mistrial when prosecutors accused Jane Orie of submitting falsified documents to the court. Zappala retried Jane Orie separately, and a jury convicted her in March of 14 of the 24 counts against her. She is serving 2 12 to 10 years in prison.

During a preliminary hearing in July, Melvin's attorneys alluded to a defense that may include blaming Janine Orie for instructing Melvin's staffers to perform campaign work without the justice's knowledge.

Neither Casey nor Brier returned calls or emails seeking comment.

“My approach was very different,” said James DePasquale, Janine Orie's attorney, who said he worked out differences with Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus without filing motions. “But there's more than one way to skin a cat.”

Zappala's spokesman, Mike Manko, declined comment.

“The defense won't be evident until the defense begins to make arguments, cross-examines witnesses and calls witnesses of their own,” said John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor.

In Jane Orie's first trial, her attorneys filed a dozen pre-trial motions, including one accusing Zappala of a conflict of interest because his father and sister have ties to the state's casino industry, an enterprise Orie scrutinized during her tenure as a state representative.

Melvin's attorneys filed nine motions, almost all of which legal experts described as “normal” within the scope of the charges. They included twice asking Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning to recuse himself because he presided over Jane Orie's trial and requesting the state Supreme Court to order the trial held outside Allegheny County.

Later, Melvin's attorneys requested the court use its so-called King's Bench powers to toss out the charges against her. The court denied both requests.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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