Public Enemies: Councilman Sentenced for Offending Federal Prosecutors

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>It's hard to imagine former Bush Administration officials suffering any consequences for multiple violations of federal electioneering law detailed by the Office of Special Counsel. Accountability, it seems, is for little people, or relatively little people, like elderly, former Boston City Council member Chuck Turner, sentenced yesterday to three years in prison for accepting a single $1000 bribe from a government informant and making false statements to federal agents. Turner was videotaped accepting a barely visible wad of cash in a federal sting; since federal agents failed to count out on tape the amount of money given to the informant it's impossible to know how much he passed on to Turner and how much he may have skimmed off the top.

Outside the courtroom, Turner could plausibly claim he was entrapped -- it's hard to find a good reason for federal prosecutors to spend tens of thousands of dollars targeting a 70 year old local council member and community activist with no history of corruption. But from the beginning, Turner irritated prosecutors by grandstanding, claiming that he'd been targeted on account of race, presenting himself as a civil rights martyr and the victim of a government conspiracy initiated by the Bush Administration, which investigated him in the course of investigating another black elected official, recently sentenced, justifiably, for corruption. He hurt himself immeasurably at trial by testifying most implausibly on his own behalf. Then, exacerbating the self-inflicted damage, Turner continued insisting on his innocence after he was convicted, showing none of the requisite remorse and attacking the integrity of the prosecution. Apparently, that is a de facto federal offense, a criminal exercise of First Amendment rights.

In a serious abuse of power, rewarded by the sentencing judge, federal prosecutors based their request for a lengthy prison sentence for Turner partly on his insulting "post-indictment conduct." Turner was not simply sentenced for accepting one bribe (of an indeterminate amount) in a long, otherwise unsullied career; he was sentenced for offending federal prosecutors -- not simply with his post-indictment conduct but with his post-conviction speech. U.S. Attorney Ortiz said she was "particularly incensed that in recent months Turner had the audacity to compare himself to civil rights heroes." Self-importance, it seems, is another de facto offense.

Turner was also sentenced for a perjury offense for which he was never tried or even charged: "U.S. Judge Douglas Woodlock laid blame for the harsh sentence squarely on Turner," the Boston Globe reports, "saying he committed blatant perjury with his 'surreal' and 'ludicrous' testimony that he could not recall meeting a government witness who handed him a wad of cash." It's not so easy to prove that a series of "I don't recalls" equals perjury - but it's easy to imprison someone for perjury, without a trial, if all that's required is an irritated, opinionated judge.

There are many more grievous instances of injustice than the prison sentence imposed on Chuck Turner. Entirely innocent people are occasionally imprisoned for years. But the banality of his case hints at the banality of dictatorial prosecutors with minimal regard for the rule of law. Harvey Silverglate has made the prosecutor's sentencing memorandum available here. In his view, it "reads like the coked-up rant of a paranoid regime, infuriated that any of its subjects would dare speak against it." Chuck Turner is not the one we need to fear.    

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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