A Philadelphia jury found former Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. guilty Wednesday of criminal conflict-of-interest charges for using his judicial chamber and staff to run his personal real-estate business.
Berry, 72, closed his eyes and sighed deeply seconds before the Common Pleas Court jury announced its verdicts on theft of services and conflict of interest after just 90 minutes deliberating.
Berry, a veteran city criminal defense lawyer and a judge from 1996 until he retired in September 2012, did not comment after the verdict. Berry's illegal use of his judicial chamber and his staff was first reported by The Inquirer in 2007.
Common Pleas Court Judge S. Gerald Corso, a senior Montgomery County judge specially assigned to preside over the case, set sentencing for Oct. 6. Corso let Berry remain free on his own recognizance until sentencing.
State Deputy Attorney General Daniel J. Dye said both charges were felonies and the theft count has a maximum penalty of seven years. But Dye added that the state guidelines recommend probation and he said he would seek restitution to the Philadelphia government.
The jury's verdict estimated the amount lost through the theft of services at $2,000, but Dye declined to say how much restitution he would seek.
Dye praised the jury's verdict: "The people of Philadelphia took a piece of their city back."
For Berry, the bigger threat is that the verdict could cost him the $6,010-a-month pension he has drawn since he retired.
Defense attorneys Nino V. Tinari and W. Fred Harrison Jr. said they would appeal to state Superior Court.
"We're sad, disappointed, but the jury has spoken," Tinari said.
The state Attorney General's Office charged Berry with the crimes in May 2014, almost two years after he retired.
The facts behind the charges, however, were the same that caused the state's Court of Judicial Discipline to suspend Berry for four months without pay in 2009.
That was a civil proceeding, however, and Berry's lawyers argued unsuccessfully that the criminal charges constituted "double jeopardy" - the Constitution's bar against being tried twice for the same crime.
Harrison cited the difficulty of defending Berry given that the transcript of his 2009 testimony became part of the record in the criminal case: "The civil case has been the bane of our existence."
The prosecution's key witness was Berry's longtime secretary Carolyn Fleming, who was hired by Berry at 17 after a summer high school internship in his law office. Berry became a mentor and, according to trial testimony, walked her down the aisle at her wedding and named her in his will.
Fleming, 44, testified that she became steadily more involved in Berry's financial affairs, helping manage his law office, rental properties, and moving with him to the city's Criminal Justice Center after he was elected judge in 1995.
That all changed in 2007, Fleming testified, after several articles in The Inquirer detailed how Berry operated his real estate business from his judicial chambers.
An investigation by the Judicial Conduct Board followed and Fleming was contacted by investigators. Fleming said Berry removed all his real estate files from chambers and, over the next six months, accused her of stealing and then fired her.
Berry's lawyers argued that Fleming went to judicial investigators in retaliation for being fired and was promised she would not be criminally charged. And they presented a string of character witnesses, including several lawyers, who vouched for Berry's character and reputation for honesty.
But the jury apparently could not get past the testimony of Fleming - and several former Berry tenants - who described how they went to Berry's 14th-floor chambers in the city's Criminal Justice Center to sign leases and pay rent. Two tenants said they met with Berry in chambers about their apartments.
Dye argued that Berry cheated Philadelphia taxpayers out of $110,000 by using his judicial staff for his business.
Chronology of Phila. Judge's Fall
1995: Willis W. Berry Jr. is elected a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge.
2005: Berry wins a retention vote for a second 10-year term.
April 29, 2007: The Inquirer publishes the first of nine investigative articles describing how Berry ran his real estate business from his judicial chambers using court staff, and how he duped a woman, Denise Jackson, out of her North Philadelphia property. That summer, the state Judicial Conduct Board begins investigating him.
Sept. 7, 2007: Jackson sues Berry in Common Pleas Court contending he paid her $1,500 for property worth $50,000.
Jan. 5, 2008: The Judicial Conduct Board accuses Berry of "bringing the court into disrepute" by running his real estate business out of his chambers, and using court staff to do so. The board recommends a one-year suspension.
June 23, 2009: Jackson's suit goes to trial. It ends abruptly in a mistrial when defense witnesses accuse her of lying and being a drug addict.
July 15, 2009: The state Court of Judicial Discipline suspends Berry for four months without pay; it could have removed him from the bench. The Philadelphia Bar Association demands he resign.
Nov. 12, 2009: Jackson's lawsuit is retried and a jury finds that Berry defrauded her. It awards Jackson $180,000 in damages.
Dec. 17, 2009: District Attorney Lynne Abraham announces she will not file criminal charges against Berry based on his suspension. She accuses the Court of Judicial Discipline of "passing the buck" for not removing Berry from the bench.
September 2012: Berry announces his retirement from the bench - the same day he was ordered to pay the $180,000 judgment in Jackson's lawsuit. Berry begins drawing monthly benefit of $6,010.
April 2014: The state Supreme Court suspends Berry's law license for one year and one day, citing the $180,000 judgment in the Jackson lawsuit.
May 2014: The state Attorney General's Office charges Berry with theft of services and conflict of interest.
Oct. 29, 2014: Berry's lawyer says he will plead guilty.
Dec. 4, 2014: Berry rejects a plea deal calling for probation and $50,000 restitution after learning it could endanger his pension.
July 20, 2015: Berry's criminal trial starts in Common Pleas Court before an out-of-county judge.
July 22, 2015: A jury convicts Berry of theft of services and conflict of interest.
- Joseph A. Slobodzian