RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A Massachusetts judge and a retired state court officer are facing federal obstruction of justice charges. Boston federal prosecutors say they helped a person in the country illegally escape an immigration agent using the back door of the courthouse. From member station WBUR, Shannon Dooling has the story.
SHANNON DOOLING, BYLINE: The charges against Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph and now-retired court officer Wesley MacGregor stem from a 2013 incident in a Massachusetts district court. An undocumented immigrant appeared before Joseph on drug possession charges. He was also facing a fugitive warrant out of Pennsylvania for drunken driving. And U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, had also issued a federal detainer on immigration charges.
The defendant's attorney told Joseph in a sidebar that the man was sure to be arrested by ICE following the hearing. Joseph and MacGregor are accused of then helping the defendant slip out a back door, avoiding the ICE agent in the courthouse. U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling says this case is not about immigration but about upholding the law.
ANDREW LELLING: We did not bring this case in response to the public debate over immigration enforcement. There are reasonable arguments on both side of that debate. But this isn't a policy seminar. It's a law enforcement action.
DOOLING: Lelling says he has heard, quote, "gasps" from certain quarters throughout the investigation from people surprised his office would pursue charges against a sitting judge. But Lelling doubled down, saying the defendants knew ICE was waiting for the man and went ahead anyway.
LELLING: The allegations in today's indictment involve the intentional interference with federal officers in the course of their duties. That is a crime.
DOOLING: Pushback against the charges was swift and fierce. Massachusetts state attorney general Maura Healey issued a strong condemnation, saying, quote, "today's indictment is a radical and politically motivated attack on our state and the independence of our courts." Former Boston federal judge Nancy Gertner also says this indictment is an overreach by Lelling's office. And she says he had plenty of other options to pursue in this case.
NANCY GERTNER: There could have been an injunction. There could have been a civil proceeding. There could have been a discussion between the federal and state authorities. Judges are rule followers. To use the criminal process this way is like using a thermonuclear device to kill a gnat.
DOOLING: Some immigration attorneys like Susan Church fear the charges will have a chilling effect throughout courts further dissuading undocumented immigrants from appearing at proceedings. Church, who is based in Cambridge, Mass., calls the indictment outrageous.
SUSAN CHURCH: We have witnesses won't come to court. We have defendants who don't get tried. We have people who can't get divorced, women who can't seek restraining orders because they are terrified about ICE interference.
DOOLING: Joseph and MacGregor were in federal court Thursday for an initial appearance. They've both been charged on three counts of obstruction of justice. MacGregor also faces a perjury charge for allegedly lying to a grand jury. Both pleaded not guilty on all of the charges. A date for future appearances has not been set and both defendants were released after being ordered to surrender their passports. For NPR News, I'm Shannon Dooling in Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF NOMAK'S "FORCE FOR TRUTH")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.