When Shelley Joseph was sworn in as a district court judge in the fall of 2017, her father was in the front row, watching from his wheelchair.
Paul Richmond, a retired food sales manager, was in the final stages of Parkinson’s disease, but he and Joseph’s mother were beaming as Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito gave the oath to their elder daughter.
He died a month later, and Joseph often spoke of how grateful she was that her father had lived to see her reach the pinnacle of her 30-year career in law, said Alan Fanger, a longtime friend who was among dozens of former colleagues, friends, and family members gathered at the State House ceremony.
“They got to see their daughter confirmed as a judge, which is pretty much near the top of accomplishments that anyone could hope for a child,” Fanger said. “That joy was palpable. I was sitting a number of rows behind them and I could see the smiles, ear-to-ear smiles the whole time.”
Five months after her appointment, in April 2018, federal prosecutors say, Joseph helped an undocumented immigrant who came before her in Newton District Court on drug charges evade an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer who had come to detain him. She now stands indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.
The case has thrust the low-profile judge into the heated debate over illegal immigration. Critics have held her up as a symbol of judicial arrogance who defied federal laws to push a liberal agenda, while supporters have called her prosecution extreme and politically motivated.
Retired judges and Attorney General Maura Healey have expressed outrage, saying US Attorney Andrew Lelling has violated the independence of the state judiciary and extended his power into a matter that could have been handled administratively by the Massachusetts Trial Court and the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct. Lelling has countered that he was not aware of any state authority that referred Joseph’s alleged actions to the commission.
Joseph, 51, pleaded not guilty on April 25, with her lawyer telling reporters, “This prosecution is absolutely political.”
She has been suspended without pay from the bench.
For friends and colleagues of Joseph, a mother of two teenage girls who early in her career was a prosecutor targeting violent gangs in Boston, her current predicament defies belief.
Scott Harshbarger, the former state attorney general who hired Joseph as an assistant attorney general in 1993, one year after she graduated from the New England School of Law, said that even if the allegations prove to be true, the punishment she has received so far — a federal indictment that has led to loss of income — feels too harsh.
“I know her values,” he said. “I know her core and everything I saw was a person who prided themselves professionally on not only being excellent but in caring deeply about the law, its fairness. That’s, to me, what hurts most about this.”
In her hometown of Natick, neighbors and town leaders are stunned, said David Linsky, a state representative and longtime neighbor and friend of Joseph and her husband.
“She’s been active in PTA . . . after-prom parties, youth sports, everything that everybody else in Natick does,” said Linsky, who declined to comment on the allegations. “Shelley Joseph was the last person that anyone could ever imagine standing as a defendant indicted in federal court. She wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Lelling has stood firm on his decision to charge Joseph and Wesley MacGregor, a 56-year-old retired court officer who is accused of using his security card to help the immigrant, Jose Medina-Perez, flee the courthouse. MacGregor has pleaded not guilty.
“My focus is on the conduct of this judge,” Lelling said during a May 6 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.”
Michael O’Keefe, district attorney in the Cape and Islands, said what has disturbed him about Joseph’s alleged conduct is the secrecy of her actions: Prosecutors said she asked a court clerk to tell the ICE officer to wait outside; ordered a clerk to turn off the recorder so she could hatch a plan with the defense to have Medina-Perez slip out a back door; and lied to supervisors who questioned her about the incident.
“The allegation here is not that this judge stood up and was forthright about what she was doing,” said O’Keefe. “If she had been, I might have a different view of this. It’s the subterfuge. That’s where the problem is . . . the feds frankly, in my judgment, are guilty of overreaching in many instances. I don’t think this is one of them.”
Joseph declined to comment through her attorney, Thomas Hoopes, who cited the pending case against her.
Unable to work, Joseph has spent the last two weeks trying to distract herself by taking long walks with her dog, a Lhasa Apso, taking spin classes and playing volleyball in an intramural group, and visiting with her mother, according to friends.
“She’s devastated,” said Harshbarger.
Joseph spent seven years in his office investigating gang activity, insurance fraud, and domestic violence.
In 1995, she and half-dozen other prosecutors, including Paul McLaughlin, were assigned to work in Grove Hall, then a hotbed of gang activity. They became part of the Safe Neighborhood Initiative, a program that reached out to gang members to offer them treatment and social services.
“The whole group became quite close,” Harshbarger said. “The reason that [they] did that was because it really, truly was an opportunity to make a difference in the quality of people’s lives.”
In September 1995, McLaughlin, 42, was fatally shot by a gang member who had been part of the initiative. His murder shattered Joseph, who kept a small, framed photo of McLaughlin on her desk for years, Fanger recalled.
In 2000, Joseph left the attorney general’s office to go into private practice with her husband, Scott, who works in real estate law.
For the next 17 years, she specialized in criminal defense work, hearings before the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and restraining orders. In September 2017, Governor Charlie Baker nominated her to the state bench. The Governor’s Council voted unanimously to approve the nomination the following month.
Carol Ball, a retired Suffolk Superior Court judge, said she spoke with Joseph by phone shortly after her appointment. Joseph was gobsmacked by her good fortune, Ball recalled.
“It was like for her like it is for all of us, ‘Oh my God, how can I be so lucky to have achieved this amazing job,’ ” Ball said.
Ball is now among many retired judges writing letters to newspapers on her behalf. They plan to attend court hearings related to the case, both to support her personally and to show their objection to the prosecution.
“We all feel strongly this is a social cataclysm,” Ball said. “You have to stop this or at least express your outrage.”
Harshbarger, who recommended Joseph as a judge, said he is anguished to see her struggling in such a public way.
“It’s one thing to make a mistake. It’s another to have your life ruined,” Harshbarger said. “I hope she’ll emerge from this, but it’s a tough way to learn a lesson.”