Federal judge urges prosecutors in Probation Department trial to trim case

The new judge overseeing the Probation Department scandal trial encouraged federal prosecutors to trim their case before presenting it to a jury, suggesting he could sever charges in the case himself if he finds it to be overwhelming for jurors.

“My choice will be made in the interest of justice,” US District Court Judge William G. Young told prosecutors today, stressing that their proposed 8-week trial is “too long.”

“I just think that that is an extraordinary amount of time to sort through these things,” the judge said. “We’ll go to trial on something that’s manageable to a jury.”

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The case involves political corruption allegations against former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien, and two of his deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William H. Burke III.

Young, who took over the case last week, held his first hearing in the high-profile case today, and he clearly sought to take over the reins and establish a sense of order. He set what he called a firm May 5 trial date, and an April 15 status conference for lawyers to raise any final concerns.

Young said he would consider any requests to revisit issues that were presented to the previous judge, US District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV. But Young indicated at the same time that he was looking to move forward as well.

Saylor agreed last week to recuse himself from the long-awaited trial, under pressure from defense lawyers who argued he had personal ties to potential witnesses in the case, including a fellow federal judge with whom he had worked closely in Worcester.

Saylor wrestled with the issue for more than a month, through often contentious hearings in which he yelled at a defense attorney he accused of interrupting him and acting unruly. The back-and-forth effectively hijacked pretrial proceedings.

Young told defense lawyers he would review a list of potential witnesses in the case, but said he had determined after a preliminary look that he had no ties to anyone that would pose a conflict of interest in overseeing the case.

“Naturally, when I drew the case, I made a preliminary review to see if there was an issue that jumped out at me,” the judge said. “I saw none.”

He agreed, however, to continue to review records in the case for anything that “causes pause.”

O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke face a sweeping racketeering indictment alleging they ran a fraudulent, rigged system that hired and promoted candidates that were favored by state legislators over more qualified candidates. In exchange, according to prosecutors, the legislators routinely gave the probation department significant budget increases, helping O’Brien build his political power.

O’Brien is also accused of bribery for offering jobs to certain state legislators, bypassing a controlled hiring system.

Defense lawyers argue that their clients did nothing illegal, even if it did involve political patronage.

Assistant US Attorney Karin M. Bell told Young that the 30-count indictment involves accusations of 40 fraudulent hirings, some of which constitute the bribery allegations. She said it could take eight weeks for prosecutors to present their case. Assistant US Attorney Robert Fisher added that the case involves a high volume of paperwork.

Young urged prosecutors to work with defense lawyers to agree on what paperwork could be introduced before the trial, so that they do not waste a jury’s time. He also encouraged prosecutors to recommend by April 15 whether they can trim their case down, perhaps separating it into two cases, so that jurors are not overwhelmed. The judge encouraged prosecutors, for instance, to sever charges that do not fall within the racketeering allegations.

In previous proceedings, Saylor had warned prosecutors that a jury could be overwhelmed with too much information. But Young seemed to be taking a proactive stance in suggesting that prosecutors trim the case. He urged prosecutors to decide by the April 15 hearing.

The judge also said that a preliminary witness list the defense list submitted seems excessive.

“I’m not supposed to allow cumulative evidence, and I don’t intend to,” the judge said. Cumulative evidence is evidence that proves something that has already been established by other evidence.