Wilkerson vs. Turner - the wheels of justice

Issues in the Wilkerson & Turner Cases, Politicus #1,073.
 A common extortionist vs. The Hustler

I do not agree with the defenders of former Senator Diane Wilkerson's, including the ever-earnest former Gov. Michael Dukakis, that her good works mitigated her confessed crimes. I regard her as a common extortionist whose sentence should only have been lengthened by her former status as a legislator.

Former Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner is more of a hustler -- a racial hustler and a general one -- whose utterances over 40 years have served his purposes with incidental connection to fact. In his political career, which came late in life, he does not seem to have been the active solicitor Ms. Wilkerson was. But if he let his palm be greased, as he is convicted of doing, it probably was not the only time.

That is how I see it, but defenders will have have the continuing opportunity to make the case that one or both of them did more good than harm in public life. Perhaps more importantly, both will have the opportunity to redeem their reputations in how they live the rest of their lives after they get out of prison. One thinks of John Profumo -- who lied to the British House of Commons about a sordid sex-and-Soviet-spy scandal -- yet was later honored by the Queen for 40 years of subsequent work with the poor in East London

Nonetheless, there was, I think, something disturbing about the way prosecutors dealt with both defendants after the determination of their guilt and prior to their respective sentencing. In Ms. Wilkerson's case, federal prosecutors had agreed to drop some two dozen other bribery charges in return for her guilty plea on eight counts; and for a recommendation of a four-year sentence, as against the 20 years she might have faced had she gone to trial and been convicted on all counts.

In the lead-up to Ms. Wilkerson's sentencing her defenders, including the former governor, made arguments for probation or a short jail-sentence by trying to focus on the totality of her service, rather than the totality of her betrayal. This may be called sophistry but cannot be called a violation of the norms of advocacy or of the adversarial practice of law.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, used the charges they had willingly dropped in the plea-bargain to assert that Ms. Wilkerson should serve the maximum of four years. They argued she was actually guilty of the dropped charges -- charges for which they had presented no sworn evidence and for which she had not been convicted. By hearsay they reintroduced the charges.

U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock sentenced Ms. Wilkerson to 42 months - seven-eighths of the bargained maximum. We do not know if he was influenced by "hearsay." One suspects he recognized a common extortionist for what she was.

In the Turner case, prosecutors argued that the defendant's testimony at trial had been "perjury," and that his public rants, often disparaging them, had been false. The jury obviously did not believe Mr. Turner's testimony that he didn't know what, if anything, his interlocutor had put into his hand. But, again, prosecutors used a crime for which the defendant was never charged as evidence that he deserved to be locked up for longer than might be called for by the crime for which he had been convicted. In this case, Judge Woodlock (who presided in both trials) seemed to accept prosecutors' assertion of lying under oath, and sentenced Mr. Turner to three years on the one count of bribery.

The question is, did Mr. Turner's use of his freedom of speech, including ridiculing the prosecutors, justify lengthening his sentence? Or, was he effectively stripped of his freedom of speech by political prosecutors when he attempted to portray his trial as political?

Both defendants asserted that their cases were racially-motivated without producing any evidence of it. But prosecutors can be ruthless and politically ambitious, and their powers need to be held to more fastidious standards than those of advocates begging a court for leniency. Arguments for extended sentences may legitimately point to effect on victims; to the rule of law; to deterrence; to a failure of public rectitude - and more. But they should not include charges never brought.

The real political lesson from these cases may be gleaned from two MBTA bus stops serving hospitals 6,600 feet apart as the crow flies over the Arnold Arboretum and Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain: For 50 years, the stop serving the Wren Street bus at Faulkner Hospital has had good lighting, a sturdy bus shelter, a manual stoplight and (more recently) a handicapped lane crossing Centre Street.

The stop at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital on Morton Street (also Route 203), serving the relied-upon #21 & #31 buses to Ashmont and Mattapan, has poor lighting, no shelter, no stoplight and no curb cut. The only indication it is a bus stop at all is worn grass in summer and icy footprints in winter showing Shattuck's workers' forced and dangerous efforts to climb over the granite curb in the middle of the highway.

This, too, has been thus for many years - and for all of Chuck Turner's career as a so-called activist and Diane Wilkerson's career on the take. For the record, the two sides of Morton Street are in two Boston precincts - Ward 19, Precinct 7 and Ward 12, Precinct 7. Their current representatives are: District City Councilors Matt O'Malley & (formerly) Chuck Turner. At-large City Councilors Felix Arroyo (who lives 300 yards from the Shattuck), John Connolly, Stephen Murphy and Ayanna Pressley. State Representative Liz Malia. State Senator Sonya Chang-Diaz (and formerly, for 16 years, Diane Wilkerson). Then on up to Mayor Thomas Menino; Congressmen Michael Capuano and Stephen Lynch; Governor Patrick and Senators Scott Brown and John Kerry. Also: MBTA General Manager Richard Davey; Paul Romary, administrator of the Shattuck - a state hospital; and Lisa Paiewonsky, until her recent resignation, Commissioner of Mass Highway, which maintains Route 203.

This represents a broad, polity-wide charade of neglect. It is reasonable to expect that two politicians who directly represented the area and who advertised themselves as protectors of the people who elected them would be the first to seek to upgrade the Shattuck stop to the longtime quality of the Faulkner stop. But I think all of the named officials and all of us are guilty of not noticing as we drive by. In the political context, black voters are guilty of being seduced by two paranoia-cultivating hustlers who robbed those they were elected to serve; and the white political elite is guilty of rolling over before racial intimidation -- assuming "Wilkerson and Turner are the best they can produce." How wrong. Let us prove that.

David A. Mittell, Jr. is a Boston-based political columnist.

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