A Massachusetts judge and a former court officer are accused of helping a twice-deported undocumented defendant elude immigration authorities by slipping out a rear courthouse door.
Newton District Court Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph, 51, and former trial court officer Wesley MacGregor, 56, were indicted Thursday on obstruction of justice and other federal charges.
They face counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, obstruction of a federal proceeding, aiding and abetting, according to an indictment in US District Court in Boston. MacGregor was also charged with one count of perjury.
"This case is about the rule of law," US Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement. "We cannot pick and choose the federal laws we follow, or use our personal views to justify violating the law."
Joseph and MacGregor appeared in federal court Thursday afternoon. They were released without bond after pleading not guilty, CNN affiliate WCVB reported.
"This prosecution is totally political and Shelley Joseph is absolutely innocent," Joseph's attorney, Thomas Hoopes, told reporters outside court. MacGregor's attorney was not immediately available.
She has been suspended without pay "until further order of this court," according to the state's Supreme Judicial Court.
Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, "believes no one should obstruct federal law enforcement officials trying to do their jobs and supports the Supreme Judicial Court's decision to suspend Judge Joseph without pay," his office said in a statement. His administration has filed legislation to allow court and law enforcement officials to work with immigration authorities "to detain dangerous individuals."
"Everyone in the justice system -- not just judges, but law enforcement officers, prosecutors and defense counsel -- should be held to a higher standard," Lelling said. "The people of Massachusetts expect that, just like they expect judges to be fair, impartial and to follow the law themselves."
ACLU calls case 'an assault on justice in Massachusetts courts'
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said the indictment was "a radical and politically motivated attack on our state and the independence of our courts" and that the matter could have been handled by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and the Trial Court.
"It is a bedrock principle of our constitutional system that federal prosecutors should not recklessly interfere with the operation of state courts and their administration of justice," she said in a statement.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, called the case "preposterous, ironic, and deeply damaging to the rule of law" and said it had "everything to do with enforcing the president's anti-immigrant agenda."
"This prosecution is nothing less than an assault on justice in Massachusetts courts, and it will further undermine community trust and safety," she said.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in a 2017 report, listed Boston as a jurisdiction that limits cooperation with the agency.
ICE does not consider courthouses sensitive locations, the agency states on its website. Places where agents generally avoid making arrests include schools, hospitals, churches and ceremonies, the ICE guidelines state.
The subject of mounting ICE arrests at courthouses during the Trump administration has been particularly sensitive between major cities and federal officials. Local jurisdictions and attorneys have complained that arresting undocumented immigrants in courthouses has a chilling effect on their participation in prosecuting criminals as witnesses and reporting victims.
Defendant was led out a rear courthouse door as ICE officer waited outside courtroom
Federal prosecutors said the charges stemmed from an April 2, 2018, incident in which Richmond and MacGregor allegedly allowed an undocumented immigrant at a criminal court hearing to escape detention by an ICE officer.
Newton Police had arrested and charged the undocumented immigrant days earlier with being a fugitive from justice and drug possession, according to the indictment. Authorities later learned he had been deported from the US in 2003 and 2007 and was prohibited from re-entering the country until 2027. ICE issued an immigration detainer and warrant of removal.
A plainclothes ICE officer went to the Newton courthouse to execute the warrant.
At one point, the court clerk was directed by Joseph to ask the ICE officer to wait in the lobby, according to court documents.
When the case was called, a court audio recording captured Joseph, the defense attorney and the prosecutor speaking at sidebar about the ICE detainer.
The defendant's attorney told Joseph he believed his client was not the same person named in the fugitive warrant.
"My client denies that it's him," the attorney said. "ICE is going to pick him up if he walks out the front door. But I think the best thing for us to do is to clear the fugitive issue, release him on a personal, and hope that he can avoid ICE. ... That's the best I can do."
Joseph responded. "ICE is gonna get him? ... What if we detain him?"
The judge then allegedly ordered the courtroom clerk to "go off the record for a moment." The audio recorder was turned off for 52 seconds, the indictment said.
When the recorder was turned on again, the documents said, Joseph said she intended to release the defendant.
The prosecutor said, "Your Honor, with the information that I have I don't think that there is enough tying him to the Pennsylvania warrant."
The defense attorney asked to speak with the defendant downstairs.
"I believe he has some property downstairs," the attorney said. "I'd like to speak with him downstairs with the interpreter if I may."
Joseph responded, "That's fine. Of course," according to prosecutors.
When reminded by the clerk that an ICE officer was in the courthouse, Joseph said, "That's fine. I'm not gonna allow them to come in here. But he's been released on this."
MacGregor then allegedly escorted the defendant, his attorney and an interpreter downstairs to the lockup and used his security access card to open the rear exit and release the defendant, the indictment said.
The ICE officer, meanwhile, was waiting for the defendant in the lobby outside the courtroom -- where the clerk told him the man would be released.
Indictment says Joseph made 'false and misleading statements' to judges looking into the matter
Joseph in April 2018 "made false and misleading statements" to other district court judges looking in the incident, according to the indictment. She allegedly told a senior district court judge that the courtroom recorder was shut off due to her "unfamiliarity with the Courtroom recording equipment."
MacGregor allegedly told a federal grand jury in July that he did not know ICE agents were at the courthouse.
The indictment cited guidance issued in November 2017, by the Executive Office of the Massachusetts Trial Court, that said "DHS officials may enter a courthouse to perform their official duties."
Joseph was appointed to the Massachusetts District Court bench in November 2017 after working as a Newton-based criminal defense attorney and lecturing at law schools, prosecutors said.
MacGregor was a Massachusetts trial court officer since 1993. He was assigned to the Newton courthouse in 2016.
"Everyone in the justice system -- not just judges, but law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and defense counsel -- should be held to a higher standard," Lelling said. "The people of Massachusetts expect that, just like they expect judges to be fair, impartial and to follow the law themselves."