The Justice Department moved Thursday to end the criminal prosecution of a Massachusetts judge and a court officer who had been charged with helping an undocumented immigrant escape from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer at a courthouse in 2018.
The judge, Shelley M. Richmond Joseph, and the court officer, Wesley MacGregor, were indicted in 2019 on charges that they had prevented the ICE officer from taking the man into custody by allowing him to sneak out of Newton District Court in Newton, Mass.
Prosecutors said in 2019 that Judge Joseph had ordered the man, an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic, to go to a basement facility, where he was let out of a back door rather than into the lobby, where she knew that an ICE officer was waiting for him.
Under an agreement announced Thursday, prosecutors said they would drop charges against the judge and Mr. MacGregor of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstructing a federal proceeding. Prosecutors said they would also defer an additional perjury charge that Mr. MacGregor had faced.
In exchange, prosecutors said, Judge Joseph has agreed to refer herself to the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is responsible for investigating and recommending discipline for state court judges. She also made “factual admissions” that the commission may consider, prosecutors said.
The agreement brought relief to some of Judge Joseph’s supporters, who had argued that the federal charges threatened to undermine the independence of state court judges and made them fearful of antagonizing federal officials, especially in cases involving undocumented immigrants.
The indictment had been announced during the Trump administration, when Massachusetts and other states that were trying to provide a sanctuary for immigrants were engaged in a heated battle with federal officials intent on carrying out President Trump’s plans to crack down on undocumented immigration.
“It’s a fair and just resolution, really, to a case that never should have been brought,” said Geraldine S. Hines, a retired justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who joined other retired judges in a 2019 legal brief arguing that the case should be dismissed. “I know if sitting judges could speak, they would probably join in the chorus of applause for this resolution.”
Judge Joseph’s legal team said in a statement that she had pleaded not guilty nearly three and a half years ago and “she stands by her innocence today.”
“This was a patently political indictment, blindly grounded in prosecutorial ambition,” Thomas M. Hoopes, one of Judge Joseph’s lawyers, said in the statement. “We are hopeful that it will result in a long-deserved dismissal, which we take as full and complete exoneration.”
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In a statement of facts filed Thursday, Judge Joseph acknowledged having held a sidebar conference with a prosecutor and a defense lawyer, who said that an ICE officer was waiting outside the courtroom with an immigration detainer.
“ICE is gonna get him?” Judge Joseph said, according to the statement. She then added, “What if we detain him?”
The defense lawyer asked if the sidebar was being recorded and asked to go off the record. Contrary to the Massachusetts Rules of Court, Judge Joseph directed the court clerk to turn off the recording device, the statement said.
What followed was a 52-second “off-the-record sidebar conference” during which the defense lawyer asked Judge Joseph to allow his client, who had been escorted up to the courtroom by a court officer, to go back downstairs, the statement said.
The defense lawyer and an interpreter later accompanied the man downstairs to a lockup area. A court officer then used his key card to open the door to a sally port and released the man out the back door, the statement said.
The move to drop the case was announced by Zachary A. Cunha, the U.S. attorney for the District of Rhode Island, who had been appointed to oversee it after the recusal of Rachael S. Rollins, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts. When she was the district attorney for Suffolk County, Ms. Rollins joined a lawsuit in 2019 that sought to stop ICE agents from searching state courthouses for undocumented immigrants.
Mr. Cunha, a nominee of President Biden’s, said that after he was appointed to the case, he had reviewed the evidence, the law and “relevant equitable and prudential factors.”
“Having done so, I have concluded that the interests of justice are best served by review of this matter before the body that oversees the conduct of Massachusetts state court judges, rather than in a continued federal criminal prosecution,” he said in a statement.
Andrew E. Lelling, who was the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, nominated by Mr. Trump, when Judge Joseph and Mr. MacGregor were indicted, said in a statement that prosecutors might differ in a given case, especially unusual ones, and that he respected Mr. Cunha’s “thoughtful decision-making here.”
“What the agreed factual statement carefully avoids is requiring Judge Joseph to confirm or deny that she intentionally conspired to help the defendant evade federal authorities,” Mr. Lelling wrote in an email. “A federal grand jury concluded that she did, and that would be a serious, politically motivated abuse of her position.”
He said that it would be in the public interest for the judicial conduct commission to “get to the bottom of that question and proceed accordingly, whichever way it comes out.”
Mr. MacGregor has resigned as a court officer and is no longer employed by the state court system, according to court documents. His lawyer, Rosemary Scapicchio, said, “He needed to get this case over with.”
Source: NY Times