Pennsylvania Judges Testify in Retired Judge’s Insurance Fraud Case

November 12, 2008

Several Pennsylvania judges appeared in a federal courtroom Monday to defend one of their own: retired Superior Court Judge Michael Joyce.

Joyce, 59, is being tried on mail fraud and money laundering charges for allegedly scamming insurance companies out of $440,000 by faking or exaggerating neck and back injuries from a 2001 fender bender.

The defense contends the injuries were legitimate or that Joyce truly believed they were. In either case, they say he’s innocent.

Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, Superior Court President Judge Kate Ford Elliott and Erie County Common Pleas Judge Michael Dunlavey all testified for the defense Monday. Each remembered Joyce complaining of back and neck pain since the August 2001 accident.

“I believe that he complained a lot about his back,” Ford Elliott said. “It was generally believed by me and I guess by others that he had a back problem.”

Joyce’s attorneys contend the traffic accident aggravated spinal fusion surgery Joyce had on his neck in the early 1990s. They argue the pain caused Joyce to curtail, though not halt, his active lifestyle, which included scuba diving, golfing, inline skating and weightlifting. They have also introduced medical testimony suggesting Joyce’s accident and injuries were more severe than the government claims.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold contends Joyce’s car was rear-ended at 2-3 mph. Prosecutors say, after the accident, Joyce golfed regularly, piloted a plane at least 50 times and renewed his membership in an association of professional scuba divers, actions that show his injuries weren’t as severe as he claimed.

Trabold contends Joyce faked the injuries to support a lifestyle he could not sustain on his $165,343-a-year salary, including a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a hot tub, $6,000 worth of plastic surgery for the woman who is now his wife, and down payments on a new home and Cessna airplane.

The centerpiece of Trabold’s case is a rambling letter Joyce sent to an insurance company. In the letter, Joyce claimed the injuries kept him from working and even cost him a run at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2001, when he claimed to have the Republican Party nomination.

Joyce never had the nomination, though trial witnesses have differed over whether he might have been about to receive the state GOP endorsement before he dropped out of the race to care for his ill mother.

One witness who testified Monday, Philadelphia attorney Carl Buchholz III, said Joyce’s pain was so bad he quit golfing in the middle of a round at the exclusive Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia in June 2002.

McCaffery and Dunlavey both recalled Joyce complaining of back pain. Dunlavey, best man at Joyce’s third wedding, rejected Trabold’s suggestions that he wasn’t around Joyce enough to vouch for his constant pain.

Dunlavey, like Joyce, is a Vietnam veteran, and said he has chronic arm and hand pain from neck and back injuries. But Dunlavey, 62, said he has continued to scuba dive, inline skate and even play Thanksgiving football with his teenage relatives _ despite the pain it causes him.

Dunlavey recalled Joyce worrying at one point that the trembling and shooting pains down his arm might have been caused by Lou Gehrig’s disease. Joyce had claimed as much in his letter to the insurance company and Dunlavey became upset when Trabold continued to press him.

“Those are my hands, Mr. Trabold,” Dunlavey said, holding out his arms. “I know what pain is.”

Joyce’s attorneys expect to call other judges and defense witnesses as the trial continues through at least Thursday.

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