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Letters of support for Wilkerson pour in to judge

The letters are urging US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock to consider former state senator Dianne Wilkerson’s community service when he sentences her Dec. 22. The letters are urging US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock to consider former state senator Dianne Wilkerson’s community service when he sentences her Dec. 22. (John Bohn/ Globe Staff/ File 2008)
By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / December 2, 2010

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She will be sentenced next month for admittedly taking $23,500 in bribes, including $1,000 she stuffed in her bra on an infamous FBI videotape. Her rap sheet already includes a 1997 conviction for failing to file federal taxes. And she has a long history of other legal problems, including campaign finance violations.

But former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, the primary target of the federal investigation that yesterday led to the ouster of Chuck Turner from the Boston City Council, is still a hero to Dorothy Haskins.

Haskins, 73, is the grandmother of the late Jermaine Goffigan, who was killed in gang crossfire in Roxbury on Halloween 1994 after his 9th birthday party and a night of trick-or-treating. She rushed to Haskins’s house the morning after to help arrange the funeral and feed and comfort the stunned family. And she has visited or called on every anniversary of Jermaine’s death, according to Haskins.

“That’s the Dianne we know,’’ Haskins wrote US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, who has received more than 70 letters urging him to consider Wilkerson’s service to the community when he sentences her on Dec. 22. “There is absolutely nothing to be gained by her going to jail. . . . Whatever you do, she deserves mercy and compassion, because that’s what she gave to everybody who needed it.’’

It is hardly uncommon for judges to receive written pleas of leniency before sentencings. But the letters to Woodlock are unusual because of the quantity and the diversity of those who wrote them. The authors range from former Governor Michael Dukakis, for whom Wilkerson served as an assistant legal counsel in the 1980s, to relatives of at least three murder victims, from lawyers and former staff members to a woman who says Wilkerson helped her recognize that she was being battered.

Wilkerson’s lawyers say they have encouraged people to send letters on her behalf, but that many of the letters have come from individuals who volunteered to express their support.

The letters, which Wilkerson’s lawyers say they are still receiving and filing with the federal court in Boston, also provide a glimpse of why Wilkerson held office for nearly 16 years despite a litany of legal woes. Wilkerson, who was the first black woman elected to the state Senate and was once considered a rising star in Democratic politics, is described repeatedly by her supporters as a mother figure, not to mention a champion of civil rights and progressive values.

“She is a woman with a big heart, warm smile, and a soothing soul, our own Rosa Parks,’’ wrote Terrance M. Vasquez, of Brockton. Wilkerson, he wrote, prevented the bank from foreclosing on his parents’ house in the 1980s when she was a lawyer for the local NAACP lobbying on behalf of victims of mortgage scams.

Dr. Kenneth C. Edelin, who got to know Wilkerson as chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston City Hospital, wrote that her tireless advocacy for health care for women and children in the inner city and her crimes seem irreconcilable.

“My only conclusion is that there must be some deep-seated problem which needs to be explored, defined, and treated,’’ he wrote. “Simple incarceration alone will not remedy this problem.’’

How much sway the letters will have on Woodlock, a former federal prosecutor who obtained convictions in several political corruption cases in the 1980s, is unclear.

Brad Bailey, a Boston criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said that if Wilkerson’s lawyers end up forwarding about 100 letters to Woodlock, as they predicted Tuesday, it will be a remarkable amount.

Bailey said he, too, seeks such letters when representing a defendant at sentencing and has never seen a federal judge fail to credit them.

But Bailey expected that the eight counts of attempted extortion to which Wilkerson pleaded guilty in June and federal sentencing guidelines will be more important in determining the punishment that Woodlock hands down than the pleas for mercy. The guidelines recommend 38 to 46 months in prison for her crimes.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the decisive factor in this case,’’ he said of the letters.

Still, Harvard Law professor Charles J. Ogletree, a member of Wilkerson’s legal team, said the letters should guide Woodlock when he pronounces sentence because federal rules “allow you to hear from others who may know more than you, who may have a deeper context.’’

Federal prosecutors have recommended Wilkerson be sentenced to 48 months in prison for taking the bribes in the FBI sting that led to her arrest in October 2008. That is the maximum prosecutors said they would recommend when Wilkerson pleaded guilty to avoid a trial, and two months more the harshest punishment suggested by the guidelines.

But it is warranted, said prosecutors for US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, because of Wilkerson’s long history of illegal conduct and ethical lapses.

Wilkerson’s lead lawyer, Max D. Stern, of Boston wants his client to be sentenced to substantially less than the 38 months recommended as the minimum in the guidelines, based in part on what he called her “extraordinary history of good works.’’ He plans to be more specific about the sentence later.

In a remark that did not appear to bode well for Wilkerson during a hearing Monday, Woodlock acknowledged the letters he has received but rejected Stern’s request to let some of the authors address the judge in person at sentencing.

“The focus here is not on the good the defendant has done but the bad,’’ Woodlock said.

The defense is not the only one that has reached out to individuals not directly involved in Wilkerson’s case to weigh in on an appropriate sentence. In July, Ortiz wrote Senate President Therese Murray and Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts, inviting them to submit written statements on the impact her corruption case has had on the government.

Wilmot told the Globe that her organization has never submitted such a statement in a sentencing and declined the invitation. Murray could not be reached for comment.

Bailey, the defense lawyer, noted that it is common for crime victims to deliver statements, written or in person, on the impact that the crimes had on them.

But he said he has never seen prosecutors solicit statements about the impact a crime has had on the government itself.

Wilkerson pleaded guilty to accepting eight payoffs totaling $23,500 from a witness cooperating with the FBI and from undercover agents. The money was to secure a liquor license for a nightclub and legislation to pave the way for a commercial development in Roxbury, which she represented.

Turner was arrested in the same FBI sting for accepting a $1,000 payoff from the cooperating witness. He was convicted in October after a dramatic 13-day trial, and yesterday the City Council voted to oust him. He is scheduled to be sentenced by Woodlock on Jan. 25.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

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