The Justice Department has moved “in the interest of justice” to drop all charges against a Newton District Court judge and former court officer who were accused of thwarting efforts by federal agents to take an undocumented immigrant into custody, drawing an end to a contentious case that had been brought under the Trump administration.
In exchange, Newton District Court Judge Shelley Joseph has admitted to certain facts that will be referred to the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigates alleged misconduct by judges and makes recommendations to the state’s highest court about potential disciplinary action, according to a filing by prosecutors in US District Court on Thursday.
However, she has not admitted to any wrongdoing and may defend herself if the state commission decides to take any action against her, according to court filings.
Joseph’s attorneys issued a statement after the agreement was announced by prosecutors, saying “she stands by her innocence,” but that she has agreed to refer the matter to the commission because she recognizes the importance of public confidence in the judiciary.
“This was a patently, political indictment, blindly grounded in prosecutorial ambition,” one of her lawyers, Thomas Hoopes, said in an e-mail. “We are hopeful that it will result in a long deserved dismissal — which we take as full and complete exoneration.”
Prosecutors agreed to dismiss conspiracy and obstruction charges against Joseph and Wesley MacGregor, a former court officer, and entered into a separate deferred prosecution agreement with MacGregor on a single count of perjury for allegedly lying to a federal grand jury.
Like Joseph, MacGregor has not admitted to any wrongdoing. However, prosecutors agreed to drop the perjury charge in six months in exchange for his acknowledgement that there could be sufficient evidence to convict him.
“He’s just looking to be able to support his family and be able to get out from underneath this dark cloud that’s been hanging over his head for more than four years,” said MacGregor’s lawyer, Rosemary Scapicchio, adding that the case never should have been brought.
“I hope that the takeaway from this case is that the federal government should never be in a position to try to micromanage what happens in state courts, for judges or court officers,” Scapicchio said.
The government’s motion must be approved by US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin, who is presiding over the case.
Joseph, 54, and MacGregor, 59, were indicted in April 2019 for allegedly preventing a federal agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement from taking an immigrant into custody by allowing him to leave the courthouse out a secured back door, while the agent was ordered to wait in a lobby.
The case was filed amid a polarizing debate over immigration enforcement as Donald Trump vowed to more aggressively target undocumented immigrants and crack down on “sanctuary cities” that gave them safe haven.
In a statement, US Attorney Zachary A. Cunha of Rhode Island, who was assigned to oversee the case earlier this year, said the agreement “will resolve the entirety of the pending federal prosecution.”
“This case is about the conduct of a sitting state court judge, on the bench, in the course of her judicial duties. Its purpose has been to shed light on, and, as warranted, to secure accountability for that conduct,” Cunha said. “I have concluded that the interests of justice are best served by review of this matter before the body that oversees the conduct of Massachusetts state court judges, rather than in a continued federal criminal prosecution.“
Former US attorney Andrew Lelling, a Republican appointed by Trump, who brought the indictment against Joseph and MacGregor, said the case was not politically motivated and solely rested on the judge’s conduct. But he has acknowledged it was unique.
“Prosecutors are going to differ on what they think is appropriate in a given case — especially in unusual cases — so I respect US Attorney Cunha’s thoughtful decision-making here,” Lelling said in an email.
However, he said the agreement between prosecutors and Joseph “carefully avoids” requiring the judge to confirm or deny that she intentionally conspired to help the immigrant evade the federal agent.
“A federal grand jury concluded that she did, and that would be a serious, politically-motivated abuse of her position,” said Lelling, adding that the state commission should “get to the bottom of that question and proceed accordingly, whichever way it comes out.”
In a “statement of facts” filed with the motion to dismiss, Joseph acknowledged that she was the only judge sitting at Newton District Court on April 2, 2018, when an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic appeared before her facing two drug possession charges and a fugitive warrant for drunken driving charges in Pennsylvania.
At the time, the man was initially identified as Jose Medina-Perez, but he was later confirmed to be Oscar Manuel Peguero.
In court that day, a state prosecutor dropped the fugitive charge after concluding the Pennsylvania warrant was for a different man, and recommended releasing Peguero without bail. However, an ICE agent had arrived at the Newton courthouse with a warrant to take Peguero into federal custody to initiate deportation proceedings after fingerprints taken by police showed he had previously been deported from the United States in 2003 and 2007.
As part of Thursday’s agreement, Joseph acknowledged that she knew the ICE officer was waiting to take Peguero into custody and ordered him to remain outside the courtroom, “in accordance with the practice of the presiding judge” at the Newton court. But, she said she was aware that courthouses and courtrooms are public spaces, open to everyone, including federal agents.
Joseph also admitted that, contrary to state court rules, she ordered a recording of the proceeding turned off for 52 seconds while she spoke with Peguero’s lawyer, who asked her to let his client “go back downstairs.”
Joseph acknowledged that she granted that request, even though she knew that the agent was waiting for Peguero in the lobby outside the courtroom. She also agreed it was customary to release defendants from the courtroom, where the only public access was through a door leading to the lobby.
MacGregor used his security key to let Peguero out the back door, according to the agreement, allowing him to evade ICE that day. Peguero was arrested later that month on the immigration charge and was freed on bond by an immigration judge, according to ICE.
The agreement requires Joseph to self-report her handling of the case within 30 days to the state commission, which will automatically trigger a review.
Howard Neff, executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct, declined to comment on Joseph’s case.
“All proceedings before the commission are confidential,” Neff said.
The dismissal could pave the way for Joseph to return to work. She was placed on unpaid leave from the state court system after her arrest, but months later the state’s highest court reinstated her $184,000 annual salary during her leave.
MacGregor retired the month before the indictment.
Thursday’s agreement was filed as supporters of Joseph had been urging the Department of Justice to reconsider the charges amid a shift in immigration policy under the Biden administration.
In February, a federal appeals court refused to dismiss the case.
The decision on how to proceed fell to Cunha, after Lelling’s successor, US Attorney Rachael Rollins, was recused by the Justice Department because of a potential conflict of interest. As the Suffolk district attorney, a position she held before she was appointed US attorney, Rollins had joined a lawsuit against the federal government seeking to prevent immigration officials from arresting people in state courts.
Recently, the state drug charges were dropped against Peguero, 43, and he was released, according to court filings. However, his immigration status remains unclear as ICE has not provided details in response to inquiries from the Globe.