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The federal guidelines called for a sentence between 36 and 46 months in prison. So it didn't seem much of a surprise when the federal judge sentenced former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson to a term of 42 months Thursday. But Wilkerson and her lawyers are calling it excessively harsh and unwarranted.
It was Judgment Day, and on the way into court and before the judge issued his sentence, Wilkerson said she was hoping for mercy. Her pastor and supporters described her as "broken by God." But on her way out, she sounded unbroken.
"What I would submit to you today is that the very effort by the local and federal law enforcement to accomplish their goal was in itself a most corrupt and outrageous abuse of the the justice system," Wilkerson said.
Minutes earlier she had stood before Judge Douglas Woodlock saying she took responsibility for her actions.
"I'm guilty of the crimes that are charged," she said.
"What I would submit to you today, is that the very effort by the local and federal law enforcement to accomplish their goal was in itself a most corrupt and outrageous abuse of the the justice system."Ex-state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson
Now she was calling the actions of the government and its "collaborators," "despicable," and alleging that the case had been intended to silence her and now-convicted Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner.
"Fighting everyday to provide equality and justice for people for whom it was regularly denied. That can't be denied," Wilkerson said.
Nonsense, replied the U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. She inherited the case when she assumed office last year.
"But Ms. Wilkerson, the evidence was overwhelming of her involvement in taking bribes. It was video recorded, and it happened on more than one occasion from more than one person for an extensive period of time," Ortiz said.
"You have multiple payments, by multiple people, for multiple schemes," the prosecutor John McNeil said in describing the bribes. Urging a strong sentence, he told the judge, "You have a unique opportunity to speak with authority about the corrosiveness of public corruption in this state."
As evidence, McNeil pointed to photographs in the daily papers of three beaming former speakers of the House. They had been greeted like heroes, he said, even though two are convicted felons and a third is awaiting trial on corruption charges.
But in sentencing Wilkerson, the judge was clearly influenced, said her attorney, Max Stern.
"The judge was motivated most of all, he said, by the need to crack down on corruption and hand out greater sentences than had been had before," Stern said.
Stern asked why, if neither of the convicted House speakers served a day in prison, why his client "needed to be treated not just in a harsher manner, but in so much harsher a manner than anybody has ever been treated for a similar offense in Massachusetts."
But Wilkerson is a repeat offender, "a recidivist," Woodlock said several times. She had already gotten a second chance after her conviction for tax evasion in the 1990s. Yet as a state senator, she engaged in an established pattern of violations of ethics and campaign finance laws. Despite her extraordinary work for her constituents, said the judge, "The wish became the mother of the hope she could slide by. People would say she's doing God's work and consequently we'll be indulgent."
"When you're a public official, and you violate the public trust, then we're going to actively and aggressively pursue those kinds of cases," Ortiz said.
The judge looked out on a courtroom packed with people from Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan — regular folks, ministers and parents of murdered children — who saw in Wilkerson someone who had given so much of herself, she was too poor to pay attention to her own personal life.
It was an explanation, but not an excuse, the judge said. Of the bribes Wilkerson took, he concluded, "It was not crude arm-twisting, it was a soft and gentle solicitation, a touch," that became the Wilkerson tax.
Outside, the person who'd just asked for mercy and compassion took on a different tenor.
"I've been through it before. And I'll get through this. Stronger, and with my head held high," Wilkerson said.
No matter what Wilkerson's pastor and attorneys said, broken she isn't. Despite her guilty plea she and her attorneys walked away talking about seeking vindication.
This program aired on January 7, 2011.
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