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Politics

DA seeks outside jury for Orie case

| Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. wants a jury from outside Allegheny County to hear state Sen. Jane Orie's corruption case because of "fabricated" allegations against him.

Zappala's office fired back against Orie's claims that the charges he filed were politically motivated, and like a "mafia hit," in hundreds of pages of court documents filed this week.

"At various times throughout the past year, numerous allegations have been made by defendant Sen. Jane Orie, and others on the defendant's behalf, disparaging the office of the district attorney, the district attorney himself, and even more significantly, to denigrate the (good faith) prosecution," Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus wrote in asking for a jury to be picked outside the county.

Orie, a McCandless Republican, and her lawyers have said the charges are politically motivated because Zappala's family has contacts with gambling interests and Orie was a vocal critic of the state's casino industry.

Claus wrote that "Orie did not associate the Zappala family name with the defendant's position on gaming in any way until after the initiation of the investigation." He said a former Orie staffer initiated the "legitimate" investigation, and a grand jury later approved the prosecution.

Orie is charged with theft, conflict of interest and tampering with evidence. Janine Orie, an aide to their sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, also is charged. Zappala's office said they forced employees to conduct political work on public time.

Judges usually grant requests for out-of-county juries only in high-publicity cases. Typically, the defense makes the request. Jane Orie's attorney, William Costopoulos, blasted the request and said he would oppose it.

"We want to be tried by a jury of her peers from Allegheny County," said Costopoulos, who called the request intriguing. "I don't know why the District Attorney's Office doesn't trust the same jurors they pick from every day."

Costopoulos said he believes Orie's recent re-election to the Senate prompted the request.

"She won the election, and the court of public opinion has made it clear that they want Jane Orie to continue as senator," Costopoulos said. "If she had lost the election, I don't think the district attorney would be seeking a change of venire."

Prosecutors said potential jurors have been exposed to one-sided, pretrial publicity for a year while they refused to engage in "trial by media."

"Following the defendant's arraignment, defendant Sen. Jane Orie, and others acting on her behalf, made disparaging statements to the media about the district attorney and the validity of the prosecution characterizing it as a 'vendetta' and likening it to a 'mafia hit,' " Claus wrote.

He pointed to one comment made by Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, who referred to an FBI agent in his political corruption case as Zappala's "goombah." The former county coroner and Zappala -- both Democrats -- once waged a public battle over court hearings.

Orie and her sister are due in court Monday, when Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning is likely to decide on several pretrial requests. The trial is scheduled for February.

Among other requests, Claus asked that any reference to Orie's comments about the prosecution be barred from trial, in addition to any reference of her refusal to accept a pay raise or pension benefit increase.

Manning last decided that a jury should be picked outside the county earlier this year when he granted a request from defense attorneys for Richard Poplawski, who is charged with fatally shooting three Pittsburgh police officers in 2009.

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