County prosecutors and defense attorneys will open the campaign corruption trial of suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister, Janine, on Friday before a jury of 12 and four alternates selected in a daylong session Wednesday.
Melvin, 56, from Pittsburgh's North Hills suburbs, is charged with theft of services and other crimes for allegedly using her state-paid Superior Court staff to campaign on state time when Melvin unsuccessfully ran for the Supreme Court in 2003 and again when she won a seat in 2009. Janine Orie, 59, is suspended from her job as Melvin's Supreme Court aide and headed her sister's Superior Court staff when the allegedly illegal campaigning occurred.
Despite intense media publicity, the 16 jurors were picked from fewer than 50 summoned. Although 33 of those jurors said on a questionnaire that they had learned something about the case from the media, most said they could set aside that information and render a fair verdict.
Several potential jurors were excused based on potential work-related hardships, given that the trial is expected to last four weeks. One woman was excused after telling Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus and attorneys for both sides that the case was likely to aggravate her bipolar disorder because of its complexity.
"I was getting a headache just listening to all the different things they were going over that we were to vote on" to render a verdict, the woman said.
Melvin's former law clerk, Lisa Sasinoski — the wife of an Allegheny County judge and now a clerk for fellow Supreme Court Justice Max Baer — is just one of several staffers who have testified at a preliminary hearing and are expected to accuse Melvin and Janine Orie of directing the illegal campaign work over several years.
The sisters also are accused of conspiring with a third sibling — former Republican state Sen. Jane Orie, 51 — to also use the lawmaker's staff to campaign for Melvin. Orie is serving 2½ to 10 years in state prison for misusing her state-paid staff on her own campaigns but she was acquitted last year of charges that she directed her staff to illegally campaign for Melvin, too.
Melvin's attorneys want the jury to hear of that acquittal, but Nauhaus has yet to rule on a motion by prosecutors to keep the former senator's favorable verdict on the Melvin-related counts out of evidence.
Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Claus argues that it's illegal for Melvin's attorneys to introduce such evidence "to create an impression before the jury that the defendant is equally innocent."
Claus also doesn't want Nauhaus to allow Melvin's attorneys to bring evidence or arguments before the jury about District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr.'s alleged bias against the Orie family.
The judge at the former senator's trial last year concluded there was no evidence to support claims that Zappala, a Democrat, was politically motivated against the conservative Republican Orie sisters.
Attorneys for the sisters have claimed Zappala brought the charges because the Ories opposed the expansion of legalized gambling, an industry in which Zappala's relatives have an interest. Zappala has repeatedly denied any such motive.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.