A federal grand jury in Boston on Thursday indicted a Newton District Court judge and a now-retired state court officer on obstruction of justice charges for allegedly helping an undocumented immigrant evade a federal agent who had appeared at the courthouse to detain him last year.
The unusual charge against a sitting judge infuriated immigration advocates and state Attorney General Maura Healey, who called it “politically motivated,’’ but it was praised by others.
The judge, Shelley Richmond Joseph, 51, faces up to 20 years in prison for charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of a federal proceeding for helping a Dominican national flee from the back entrance of the Newton courthouse last April, according to Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling. Wesley MacGregor, a former court officer who allegedly helped the defendant sneak out, was also indicted.
“This case is not about immigration,” Lelling said at a news conference. “It is about the rule of law. . . . This case is not intended as a policy statement, at least not beyond making the point that the laws have to apply equally even if you’re a state court judge.”
Many legal specialists said they could not recall such a case, which underscored the highly politicized debate over immigration and the tension between state authorities and the federal officials who have been instructed by President Trump and the Department of Justice to crack down on undocumented immigrants.
“This is unprecedented,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice in Boston. “It’s the first instance we know of a judge being charged in this manner.”
Healey called the indictment “a radical and politically motivated attack on our state and the independence of our courts.”
“I am deeply disappointed by US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s misuse of prosecutorial resources and the chilling effect his actions will have,” she said in a statement.
MacGregor, 56, also faces perjury charges for allegedly lying to the grand jury. Both defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges. MacGregor, who wore a Celtics T-shirt and shorts into court, was brought in by a US marshal. Joseph, who wore a black dress, walked into court flanked by her attorneys.
MacGregor retired in March. Joseph has been suspended without pay, according to a Trial Court spokeswoman.
“This prosecution is absolutely political,” Thomas M. Hoopes, Joseph’s lawyer, told reporters after the hearing. “Judge Joseph is absolutely innocent.”
Governor Charlie Baker, who appointed Joseph in November 2017, said he believed the allegations were serious enough to warrant the federal investigation.
Baker called for Joseph’s removal last December, when the Globe first reported that she was being investigated by a federal grand jury.
“I said at the time of these incidents, I was disturbed by them,” Baker said. “I still am.”
Todd M. Lyons, acting Boston field office director for the enforcement and removal operations section of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Joseph’s alleged actions were “a detriment to the rule of law.”
“In order for our criminal justice system to work fairly for all people, it must be protected against judicial officials who would seek to replace the implementation of our laws with their own ideological views or politically driven agenda,” Lyons said.
According to the indictment, an officer from Immigration and Customs Enforcement was dispatched to Newton on April 2, 2018, to detain Jose Medina-Perez, a Dominican national who had entered the country illegally three times.
Medina-Perez, who had been arrested by Newton police on March 30 on charges of drug possession and being a fugitive from justice in Pennsylvania, was identified by the initials A.S., for “alien subject,’’ in the indictment, which detailed the events of that day.
The immigration officer, who was dressed in plainclothes, arrived at court around 9:30 a.m. with a warrant and identified himself to court personnel, including the court clerk who alerted Joseph to his presence.
The officer, who was not identified in the indictment, took a seat in a section of the courtroom reserved for the public.
Shortly after the case was called, the clerk told the officer to leave the courtroom and go outside.
The clerk told the officer that if A.S. was released, he would leave the courtroom through the lobby. The officer waited there.
Inside the courtroom, the lawyer for A.S., David Jellinek, told Joseph that his client would be deported if the ICE officer detained him, according to a recording of the proceeding.
“Can we go off the record for a moment?” Joseph asked the clerk.
The courtroom recorder was turned off for 52 seconds, in violation of Trial Court rules.
“The judge and the defense attorney then conspired to have A.S. released out the back door of the courthouse,” Lelling said.
The recorder was turned back on and Jellinek could be heard asking if he could go with A.S. downstairs. “I believe he has some property downstairs,” said Jellinek, who was not identified in the indictment.
After the proceeding, MacGregor escorted A.S., his lawyer, and an interpreter downstairs where he used his security key to let A.S. out the back door.
“The ICE officer . . . did not know that A.S. had been released and in fact sat there waiting for someone . . . who was already gone,” Lelling said.
Two weeks after the hearing, a senior district judge asked Joseph why she turned off the recorder.
“Defendant Joseph falsely attributed unfamiliarity with the Courtroom recording equipment,” according to the indictment.
Joseph’s actions show the judge intentionally interfered with a federal investigation, Lelling said. Lelling declined to say whether Jellinek is under federal investigation. Jellinek declined to comment.
Former Massachusetts US attorney Michael Sullivan said Lelling made the right call.
“It’s critically important that whether they are defendants, whether they are prosecutors, whether they are witnesses, or whether they are law enforcement officers, that the judge is going to be faithful to his or her oath of office,” he said. “That is to enforce all of the laws, not just the laws that they like.”
Eva A. Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said that while what Joseph allegedly did was “unwise,” the decision to prosecute her was extreme.
“It’s shocking, it’s going too far, too aggressive,” Millona said. “I think the US attorney is trying to make an example of her to send a message to any judge who disapproves of having ICE in their courtroom.”
Retired federal court judge Nancy Gertner noted that Joseph was a new judge at the time and may have been unaware her actions could be interpreted as obstruction.
Gertner drew the parallel with Donald Trump Jr., who was not charged with obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation, despite meeting with representatives of the Russian government.
“If she did it — and I am not convinced she did it — it was a mistake,’’ Gertner said. “You don’t haul people into for court for making mistakes. . . . Criminal charges under these circumstances are not reasonable.”
Daniel S. Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University, said the indictment felt like a “warning shot” to state court judges that they must comply with ICE requests to detain immigrants wanted for removal or face federal consequences.
But Lelling, the US attorney, insisted the case was not about immigration.
He noted that he had heard “gasps” at the idea of a judge being criminally investigated.
“Are judges special? Sure,” Lelling said. “But not because of privileges they enjoy. They’re special because they’re entrusted with enormous power.”
John Ellement and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.