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Judge Hears Arguments For DiMasi Compassionate Release03:20
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Former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, center, and his wife Debbie arrive at federal court in Boston on Sept. 23, 2011, during his trial on corruption charges. (Steven Senne/AP)
Former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, center, and his wife Debbie arrive at federal court in Boston on Sept. 23, 2011, during his trial on corruption charges. (Steven Senne/AP)

A federal judge is pressing the U.S. attorney and lawyers for a onetime speaker of the Massachusetts House on their request that the once-powerful politician be freed from federal prison early.

The Bureau of Prisons, with the consent of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, is asking Judge Mark Wolf to give Sal DiMasi a compassionate release three years before the end of his eight-year sentence.

There was a hearing on the requested release Tuesday in Boston federal court.

DiMasi is not terminally ill. But 35 rounds of radiation treatment for cancer of the tongue damaged his esophagus and the treatment has resulted in chronic problems of swallowing.

As Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb explained, whenever DiMasi eats, the food comes up and he aspirates or chokes on it. He needs an attendant when he is eating, and the government argues that he can't function well in his prison setting.

"He's not doing well, not doing well at all," said one of DiMasi's lawyers, John Reinstein.

The courtroom was filled with DiMasi's family and friends from Boston's North End. But tellingly, none of the federal prosecutors from DiMasi's trial were present, a subtle sign that the U.S. attorney's decision to support DiMasi's early release is unpopular among her prosecutors.

Judge Wolf seems especially concerned that DiMasi may be receiving special treatment because of his former political status and the stature of his advocates.

After DiMasi was convicted on corruption charges in 2011, Wolf gave him a stiff sentence intended to send a message that corruption would not be tolerated in the State House.

"I intended to give him a long sentence," Wolf said Tuesday. "I didn't mean to give him a life sentence," saying he recognized that what seemed a fair sentence at the time could in light of the unforeseen turn in DiMasi's health now seem an excessive sentence.

Yet, in what sometimes lapsed into a public debate with himself, Wolf said the "unprecedented" request before him called for "evidence and explanation," and evidence and support that he questioned. As he drilled down and down, DiMasi's supporters showed signs of growing anxiety.

"Bureau of Prisons said this was done on the merits," Reinstein said. "They decided this on the merits, on the basis of his medical condition and not because of who he was or who he knew."

Wolf expressed concerns about the terms of DiMasi's potential release. To uphold respect for the law, Wolf said, he leaned toward confining DiMasi to his home, instead of allowing him out on the streets.

If you're concerned about DiMasi celebrating with his friends at Strega's and eating pasta, one of his attorneys told the judge, "that's not going to happen."

But Wolf may be more concerned that DiMasi not be seen on the streets of the North End until his full term is finished in the confines of his home.

The judge has taken the matter under advisement.

This segment aired on November 1, 2016.

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David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.

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