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Turner defense raises race question

Says councilor being selectively prosecuted

STANDING HIS GROUND Chuck Turner has repeatedly asserted his innocence and said yesterday following the hearing that he has nothing to hide. STANDING HIS GROUND
Chuck Turner has repeatedly asserted his innocence and said yesterday following the hearing that he has nothing to hide.
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / October 9, 2010

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The lawyer representing Chuck Turner, the embattled Boston city councilor, in his federal corruption trial raised questions about race yesterday during his client’s pretrial hearing, saying that Turner, who is black, is being “selectively prosecuted.’’

Barry P. Wilson, Turner’s lawyer, told US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, “I wish to show that this investigation as it pertains to Mr. Turner had to do with political overtones and racism.’’

Later, he said, “I’m attempting to show there was a singling out of Mr. Turner because he’s an outspoken advocate of his people.’’

In response to Wilson yesterday, Woodlock said he was “not sure how race gets in this case as the cause of choice for this defendant.’’

He added, “There isn’t any evidence that touches on selective prosecution.’’

Assistant US Attorney John McNeil, lead prosecutor in the trial, said of Wilson’s allegations, “This is a back-door way of asserting an entrapment-type defense.’’

Woodlock also said that if he had reason to believe prejudice was an issue with potential jurors during the selection process, he would call for a sidebar to discuss the matter with the potential juror and the lawyers.

Woodlock said the trial should start by Thursday after two days of jury selection. An aide said that Wilson plans to submit a witness list of about 60 names and that the prosecution’s list, of which they have a copy, contains about 28 names.

The name of former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who pleaded guilty to related charges, is not among them.

Turner has said he plans to testify in his own defense, even though Wilson has cautioned him not to do so. Turner, 70, has repeatedly asserted his innocence and said yesterday following the hearing that he has nothing to hide.

Authorities began investigating Turner after a cooperating witness who had made cash payments to Wilkerson in exchange for help in obtaining a liquor license told federal agents he had heard that Turner also took cash payments in connection with his official position.

On Aug. 3, 2007, Turner and the witness met at Turner’s office in Roxbury, and Turner allegedly accepted $1,000 in cash from the witness, who secretly videotaped the meeting for the FBI.

Turner was arrested on Nov. 21, 2008, and charged with extortion, making false statements and conspiracy.

In Feb. 2009, the witness, businessman Ronald Wilburn, said he felt he had been used by the FBI to topple Turner and Wilkerson, while no white politicians were charged in what he characterized as broader government corruption.

Wilkerson, who resigned her Senate seat shortly after she was charged, admitted in June to taking $23,500 in bribes. She is awaiting sentencing.

Also yesterday, as expected, prosecutors dropped a conspiracy charge against Turner, but he still faces up to 20 years in prison on the extortion charge and five years for each conviction of making three false statements.

A Cincinnati native, Turner was first elected to the City Council in 1999. He has been arrested numerous times since graduating from Harvard in 1963 during protests seeking jobs for minorities, denouncing discriminatory banking practices, and other causes.

But he said his arrest at City Hall in November 2008 was the first time he had been involuntarily incarcerated.

Yesterday, moments after the hearing, he stood in a hallway outside the courtroom and said he still cannot recall meeting with Wilburn.

“I can’t wait until the trial,’’ he said. “I can’t believe they’re going forward with this. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent to try to take down an elected official who has done nothing but serve the people of Boston. They’re going to be totally embarrassed by going after me.’’

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com.

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