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Judge urges prosecutors in Probation trial to trim case

The new judge overseeing the trial in the Probation Department scandal encouraged federal prosecutors to trim their case before presenting it to a jury, suggesting that he could sever charges in the case himself if he finds it to be overwhelming for jurors.

“My choice will be made in the interest of justice,” US District Court Judge William G. Young told prosecutors Thursday, stressing that their proposed eight-week trial is too long.

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“I just think that that is an extraordinary amount of time to sort through these things,” he said. “We’ll go to trial on something that’s manageable to a jury.”

The case involves political corruption allegations against former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien and two of his former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William H. Burke III.

Young, who took over the case last week, held his first hearing in the high-profile case Thursday, and he clearly sought to take over the reins and establish a sense of order. He set what he called a firm May 5 trial date and an April 15 status conference for lawyers to raise any final concerns.

Young said he would consider any requests to revisit issues that were presented to the previous judge, F. Dennis Saylor IV. But Young indicated at the same time that he is looking to move forward as well.

Saylor agreed last week to recuse himself from the long-awaited trial, under pressure from defense lawyers who argued he had personal ties to potential witnesses in the case, including a fellow federal judge with whom he had worked closely in Worcester.

Saylor wrestled with the legal argument for more than a month, through often contentious hearings in which he yelled at a defense attorney he accused of interrupting him and acting unruly. The back-and-forth effectively hijacked the pretrial proceedings.

Young told the defense lawyers he would review a list of potential witnesses in the case, but said he had determined after a preliminary review that he had no ties to anyone that would pose a conflict of interest.

“Naturally, when I drew the case, I made a preliminary review to see if there was an issue that jumped out at me,” Young said. “I saw none.”

He agreed, however, to continue to review records in the case for anything that “causes pause.”

O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke face a sweeping racketeering indictment alleging that they ran a fraudulent, rigged hiring system in the Probation Department that hired and promoted candidates favored by state legislators over more qualified candidates.

In exchange, prosecutors say, the legislators routinely gave the Probation Department significant budget increases, helping O’Brien to build his political power.

O’Brien is also accused of bribery for offering jobs to certain state legislators, bypassing a controlled hiring system.

The defense lawyers argue that their clients did nothing illegal, even if it did involve political patronage.

Assistant US Attorney Karin M. Bell told Young that the 30-count indictment involves accusations of 40 fraudulent hirings, some of which constitute the bribery allegations. She said it could take eight weeks for prosecutors to present their case. Assistant US Attorney Robert Fisher added that the case involves a high volume of paperwork.

Young urged prosecutors to work with the defense to reach agreement on what paperwork can be introduced before the trial, so that they do not waste jurors’ time. He also encouraged prosecutors to recommend by April 15 whether they can trim their case, perhaps separate it into two cases, so jurors are not overwhelmed. The judge encouraged prosecutors, for instance, to sever charges that do not fall within the racketeering allegations.

In previous proceedings, Saylor had warned prosecutors that a jury could be overwhelmed with too much information, but Young seemed to be proactive in suggesting that prosecutors trim the case. He urged prosecutors to decide by the April 15 hearing.

The judge also said that a preliminary witness list that the defense submitted seems excessive.

“I’m not supposed to allow cumulative evidence, and I don’t intend to,” Young said, referring to evidence that proves something that has already been established by other evidence.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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