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Feds charge judge, court officer with helping suspect skirt ICE

A gavel cracks down. (Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid/U.S. Air Force)

A state judge is claiming innocence on charges she helped a Dominican national in the country illegally for a third time and facing drug charges give a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent the slip.

Shelley M. Richmond Joseph, 51, of Natick — who Gov. Charlie Baker nominated to the district court bench in 2017 — was earning $184,694 a year with life tenure Thursday morning when U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling announced a federal grand jury was indicting her on charges of obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting for interfering with a federal investigation.

“From certain quarters I’ve heard the occasional gasp of dismay or outrage at the notion of holding a judge accountable for violating federal law. But if the law is not applied equally, it cannot credibly be applied to anyone,” Lelling said. “Are judges special? Sure. But not because of the privileges they have enjoyed. They’re special because they’re entrusted with enormous power. They explicitly swear to uphold the law and they are given life tenure under the state constitution.

“The idea of anyone interfering with federal law enforcement is troubling,” he said, “but if a judge did it, then it’s far, far worse.”

The Supreme Judicial Court announced it had suspended Joseph without pay, effective immediately.

The SJC said in a memo, signed by the clerk, that the suspension was as a result of the indictment and in “no way reflects the merits of the underlying criminal case.”

In addition to Joseph, the grand jury indicted former $83,344-a-year Trial Court officer Wesley MacGregor, 56, of Watertown with obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting, as well as perjury.

Joseph and MacGregor both pleaded not guilty in federal court Thursday afternoon, and Judge Jennifer Boal released them both on their own recognizance, and the court didn’t schedule a next appearance for either yet.

“This prosecution is absolutely political,” Joseph’s attorney Thomas Hoopes proclaimed to the media waiting outside the courthouse as his client stood quietly behind him in a black dress. “Shelley Joseph is absolutely innocent.”

Joseph wouldn’t answer questions herself as she left the courthouse.

MacGregor, still sporting the gray Celtics T-shirt he’d been arrested in, wouldn’t answer questions from reporters as he left, covering his face with court documents as reporters took photos.

MacGregor retired on March 22, according to the Trial Court. Current state payroll records show the last paycheck he received was on March 30.

Lelling said the illegal immigrant he identified only as “A.S.” was captured about a month after the April 2, 2018, incident in Newton District Court and is currently in immigration proceedings in the United States.

“A.S. had been arrested on drug charges and a charge of being a fugitive from justice. He was also in the country illegally,” Lelling said, “having been administratively arrested and deported twice before.”

Lelling said that on the date in question, “ICE had dispatched a single federal officer in plainclothes to take custody of A.S. after his release from Newton District Court. When the officer got to the courthouse, he announced his identity and purpose for being there to various courthouse personnel, including the court clerk, who then told Judge Joseph. The federal officer then sat in the public seating area of the courtroom, waiting for A.S.’s case to be called.”

But before that happened, Lelling said Joseph ordered the ICE agent to wait in the lobby.

During the audio taping of A.S.’s hearing, Lelling said Joseph ordered the court clerk to turn off the recording device for what turned out to be 52 seconds.

A.S., who had been previously deported in 2003 and 2007, according to the indictment, was barred from returning to the U.S. until 2027. But when A.S.’s attorney told Joseph ICE would grab A.S. if he was released on bail, Lelling said, “The judge and the defense attorney then conspired to have A.S. released out the back door of the courthouse to avoid the ICE officer.”

MacGregor, he said, then accompanied A.S., his defense attorney and an interpreter to lockup.

“Once downstairs, MacGregor opened the back door to the courthouse and released A.S.,” Lelling said. “The ICE officer who was told to wait outside in the courtroom in the lobby did not know A.S. had been released, and in fact sat there waiting for someone who was already gone.”

“This is not a victim-less crime because it only applies to someone,” said Peter Fitzhugh, special agent in charge of the Boston office of Homeland Security Investigations, the office that led the investigation. “If a judge deems that the law doesn’t apply to someone she likes, does the law then only apply to those she dislikes?

“Once anything other than the rule of law is allowed to drive our legal decisions, we lose the guardrails of equal justice and protection, which define us as a nation of laws,” Fitzhugh said. He added, “The people are robbed of their role in government when justice is dealt in dark corners. It is wrong, even when that dark corner is a judge’s courtroom.”

In addition to breaking Trial Court rules, Lelling alleged Joseph lied about the matter to her superiors.

“Now, there are two things this case is not about,” the prosecutor stressed during a press conference today. “First, this is not a referendum on the Massachusetts Trial Court. The state Trial Court is staffed with professional, capable jurists working in the public interest with limited resources. This matter is an outlier.

“Second … this case is not about immigration. It is about the rule of law. We don’t get to pick and choose the federal laws that we follow. The allegations in today’s indictment involve the intentional interference with federal officers in the course of their duties. That is a crime. It makes no difference to me if the federal laws are immigration laws, drug laws, tax laws, or anything else.”

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