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US Attorney Lelling defends case brought against Newton judge

Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling.
Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling.(Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling on Monday defended his decision to pursue obstruction of justice charges against a Newton District Court judge, saying, “there’s nothing political about this case.”

“My focus is on the conduct of this judge,” Lelling said during an appearance on WGBH’s “Greater Boston.” “To me, it’s not an immigration case. I know that seems counterintuitive to people. It’s a rule-of-law case. You have, the indictment alleges, a sitting judge who helps a federal fugitive evade capture by letting him out the back door. You can’t do that.”

Late last month, a grand jury in Boston indicted Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph, 51, on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of a federal proceeding for allegedly helping a Dominican national evade a federal agent and flee from the back entrance of the Newton courthouse last year, according to Lelling’s office. Joseph faces up to 20 years in prison.

Wesley MacGregor, a former court officer who allegedly helped the defendant sneak out, was also indicted.

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Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey was among those to criticize the charges against Joseph, calling it a “radical and politically motivated attack on our state and the independence of our courts.”

Healey said the matter “could have been appropriately handled by the Commission on Judicial Conduct and the Trial Court” and said she was “deeply disappointed” by Lelling’s “misuse of prosecutorial resources and the chilling effect his actions will have.”

The commission is the state agency responsible for investigating judicial misconduct complaints against state court judges.

Asked about the criticism on “Greater Boston,” Lelling said he was not aware of any state authority referring the judge’s alleged actions to the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct.

“It is public that this incident occurred, I think, about a year ago and in December of 2018, the Boston Globe ran an article outing our federal grand jury investigation, and I can now confirm that, yes, there was a federal grand jury investigation at that time,” he said. “But I’m not aware of anyone, any state authority, the Mass. AG’s office, the Mass. trial court, ever referring Judge Joseph to the Commission on Judicial Conduct in that period,” said Lelling.

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Under state law, proceedings of the commission are confidential, and a complaint filed against a judge becomes public only when the judge has agreed to a public disclosure, when the commission files formal charges against a judge with the Supreme Judicial Court, or when the Supreme Judicial Court imposes a public disposition.

When asked if he might not have pursued an indictment if the matter had been referred to the state commission, Lelling said, “I don’t know. I can’t comment on that. But the only answer to that I really can give is, ‘Yes, we look at those things.’ ”

“And so, the indictment alleges, for example, that not only did Judge Joseph commit what we say is obstruction on that date in April 2018 but then lied to her superiors about it afterwards. And that’s in the indictment.”

Messages left with Healey’s office and the Trial Court were not returned Monday evening.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.