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Witnesses' inconsistencies of alleged politicking on job likely benefit Melvin

James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin makes her way through the hallways of the Pittsburgh Municipal Courts, Downtown, with her daughter Casey during a recess on day two of her preliminary hearing, Tuesday July 31, 2012.

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Lawyers didn't deliver any knockout blows during 14 days of testimony in suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin's corruption trial. But legal experts said they didn't expect any.

“It seemed to me it was a pretty straightforward, workman-like job by the prosecution,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris. “I didn't see anything that surprised me.”

Closing arguments begin Friday in the trial of Melvin, 56, of Marshall and sister and former staffer Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless. Prosecutors accuse them of conspiring to misuse the judge's state-paid Superior Court staff for Melvin's 2003 and 2009 campaigns for Supreme Court. The sisters also are accused of using the employees of a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, for political work. A judge in June sentenced Jane Orie to 2 12 to 10 years in prison on similar charges.

The jury heard from more than three dozen witnesses, including former staffers for Melvin and Jane Orie who said the sisters made them politick on public time, and staffers who said they saw none of that.

Melvin is charged with seven counts, including four felonies. Orie faces four counts, including one felony. Both pleaded not guilty. The state Supreme Court suspended Melvin on May 18, and the state Court of Judicial Discipline halted her $195,309 annual salary in August.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys could not be reached Thursday.

Harris said former chief law clerk Lisa Sasinoski's testimony that Melvin fired her in 2003 — a few days after she complained about doing political work — appeared to be the prosecution's strongest evidence. But the defense's rebuttal witnesses challenging the characterization of the firing “was a fairly significant point,” the law professor said.

Evidence showed the state kept Sasinoski on the judge's payroll for another two weeks before she went on maternity leave for six days — although she wasn't pregnant — and then began working for Melvin's political rival, Supreme Court Justice Max Baer of Mt. Lebanon.

Retired Superior Court President Judge Joseph Del Sole told jurors that Sasinoski's departure was “not a termination.”

“That, of course, is strong evidence for the defense,” Harris said.

That some former staffers said political work took up as much as 50 percent of their workdays while others reported seeing no political work being done, “is what we mean when we say, ‘He said, she said.' That's going to be for the jury to decide,” Harris said.

Although Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus will instruct jurors that they can convict only if they believe the evidence is beyond a reasonable doubt, Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said the jury probably would need less doubt to acquit than they would in another criminal trial.

“They're not going to convict on a fine line,” Ledewitz said. “They understand there's a certain amount of this that probably goes on with all politicians.”

The one surprise in the case came Wednesday, when Melvin opted not to take the stand in her defense, Harris said.

“Whether it will turn out to be the right or the wrong decision, we won't know until the jury renders a verdict,” he said.

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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