Chelsea magistrate gets 2-year prison sentence

Abused power by coercing 2 women in courthouse sex

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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A former Chelsea District Court clerk magistrate was sentenced to prison yesterday for coercing two women who were facing prostitution charges into having sex with him at the courthouse.

“He took my dignity,’’ one of the victims told the judge just before James M. Burke, 43, of Chelsea, received a two-year sentence in US District Court in Boston. “He took advantage of me when I was in a vulnerable state in my life.’’

Burke, who was fired from his $84,000-a-year job after his arrest last year, was convicted by a federal jury in October of two counts of depriving the women of their civil rights. The jury acquitted him of causing bodily injury to one of the victims.

US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. said Burke used his position to prey on vulnerable women, adding, “It is worse when the abuse of power occurs in the judicial branch.’’

He allowed Burke to remain free on bail and ordered him to report to a federal prison, yet to be designated, on Jan. 14.

One of the women testified at trial that after her arrest on a prostitution charge in 2005, Burke removed her from a cell at the courthouse, led her to a room, locked the door, and promised to get her case dismissed in exchange for oral sex. The case was not dismissed. She later cooperated with the FBI, leading to the conviction of both Burke and a former Boston police officer.

The second victim testified that Burke repeatedly stalked her after her arrest on a prostitution charge, then sexually assaulted her when she was at the courthouse last year. She said he forced her into a downstairs room, sat on her during the assault, and threatened to keep her in jail if she did not comply with him.

“I absolutely did not consent to this action,’’ she told the judge yesterday. “The brutality of it was shocking to me. Even though I had worked on the streets on occasion, nothing compared to the humiliation and powerlessness that I felt.’’

Dressed in a gray suit and wearing glasses, Burke stood when asked by the judge if he wanted to speak before sentencing but declined to comment.

His lawyer, Robert Sheketoff of Boston, said Burke “would roam the streets’’ looking for prostitutes for sexual satisfaction, then began arranging encounters at the courthouse.

“In some ways, the courthouse became a safe haven to do what he did,’’ said Sheketoff, pointing out that Burke was not responsible for the age-old profession of prostitution in which he participated.

“They bear some responsibility, too,’’ said Sheketoff, referring to the victims who sat quietly in the courtroom. “They bear some responsibility for their lives.’’

But Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly told the judge it was ludicrous to blame the victims.

“They are in court trying to clear up a case, and he ends up sexually assaulting them,’’ Kelly said. “All of the blame should be placed on the defendant.’’

The judge ordered Burke to pay a $2,500 fine but rejected a request by one of the victims to order him to pay restitution to cover her expenses for therapy and lost wages. She said she was unable to work after the assault because she suffered anxiety and depression.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at