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Attorneys mum on Supreme Court Justice Melvin's testifying in corruption trial

| Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, 12:18 a.m.

Attorneys for state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin are expected to spend most of the week calling witnesses to convince the jury that she's not guilty of corruption charges. But they will not say whether the suspended justice will testify.

“No comment,” defense attorney Daniel Brier said on Friday as he left the courtroom at the close of the 11th day of Melvin's corruption trial.

Deciding whether Melvin, 56, of Marshall should testify will be tough, legal experts said.

“It's always the most difficult decision a defendant and her lawyer make, especially when it's a white-collar case like this,” said veteran defense attorney Caroline Roberto, who is not affiliated with the case. “Although the jury will be given instructions that the defendant doesn't have to testify, there's an expectation on the part of the jury that someone of that stature will take the witness stand.

“The pitfall is that generally once the defendant takes the stand, the case will rise or fall on her testimony.”

Prosecutors accuse Melvin and her sister, Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless of using state-paid staffers to do political work during Melvin's runs for the high court in 2003 and 2009. Orie worked as a secretary for Melvin. Former staffers testified that Orie acted as an office manager who doled out political chores.

At his two trials, former state Rep. Mike Veon, D-Beaver County, convicted twice on charges connected to the Legislature's Bonusgate politicking scandal, did not testify.

“We've all second-guessed that decision since (the first trial),” said Veon's attorney, Joel Sansone. “On one hand, every juror wants to hear the defendant say, ‘I didn't do it. I'm not guilty.'

“The problem is you open them up to cross-examination, and the prosecution can ask questions for hours. The defendant can have a difficult time answering questions designed to make them look guilty.”

Sansone said Melvin's lawyers would have an opportunity to talk about her accomplishments if she takes the stand, but prosecutors would have many opportunities to pin blame on her.

“The prosecution could say, ‘Look, you're copied on this email (about political work). Here it is in black-and-white. How could you not know?'” Sansone said. “But maybe the justice gets hundreds of emails per day.”

Allegheny County prosecutors called 24 witnesses before finishing their case.

On Friday, Melvin's defense team took over, arguing that staffers were too busy with judicial work to campaign for her.

Brier said he expected closing arguments by the end of this week.

Orie initially went to trial in a joint case with a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, but the case ended in a mistrial. Prosecutors retried Jane Orie separately; a jury convicted her in March.

Jane Orie testified in her corruption trials, saying she was “sloppy” about separating political and legislative work but what she did was not criminal.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He canbe reached at 412-320-7886or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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