A cornerstone of American criminal law is that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. That’s a critical protection within our criminal justice system, and it distinguishes us from the systems that some other countries use. Notwithstanding this precept, it seems that some people, no matter how many times they see the guilty fall, think they can act with impunity to break all kinds of different laws. In my experience as a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney and legal commentator, this is most commonly seen in the areas of organized crime and politics (which some observers would say are not that far removed from each other).
In Massachusetts, we have once again seen the envelope of brazenness pushed to the limit, with the arrest and arraignment earlier this week of state senator Dianne Wilkerson, of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Sen. Wilkerson was charged with 23 separate counts of federal bribery charges, representing the culmination of an 18-month plus undercover investigation by FBI and federal law enforcement authorities. Federal authorities received information from an undercover informant in 2007 that Sen. Wilkerson was accepting bribes from business interests seeking favorable approval for a range of permit applications, including liquor licenses and real estate development approvals, from state and city officials.
What makes the charges against Sen. Wilkerson so challenging to the concept that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, is the fact that FBI agents, posing as businessmen, wore concealed video cameras and microphones in their meetings and “dealings” with Sen. Wilkerson, and what is seen on these videos makes “brazen” seem mild by comparison. Sen. Wilkerson is seen on tape taking thousands of dollars at a time in cash bribes, in hand-to-hand delivery – at one point actually stuffing fistfuls of cash under her sweater, into her bra. Despite this overwhelming evidence in the form of video and audio tape, and informants ready to testify against her as well, Sen. Wilkerson insists that she is innocent of these charges.
What she may mean is “legally” innocent: Give the quantum of evidence against Sen. Wilkerson, her most likely defense in court will be that she was “entrapped” by government authorities. This artful legal defense asserts that, while the defendant may have actually committed the illegal acts he/she is charged with, the defendant would not normally have otherwise committed those acts, if they were not first “enticed” to do so by government investigators seeking to “entrap” her. If this defense argument were accepted by a jury, a defendant so charged could be found not “legally” guilty of the act(s) charged with. In essence, this is a seduction defense, and, while it’s sometimes been successful, it fails more times than it succeeds.
For context, it should be noted that this is not Dianne Wilkerson’s first or only brush with the law. She was previously charged with tax evasion, campaign finance violations, defaulting on student loans, and was previously sentenced to monitored confinement in a halfway house in Boston. Since these newest charges erupted earlier this week, she has terminated her attempts to mount a write-in campaign after losing the state senate primary election in September. Defiant still, she insists she is innocent of these federal bribery charges.
Dianne Wilkerson is entitled to due process, a fair trial, and to a vigorous legal defense. But it isn’t going to be easy.