Saying he felt "embarrassed and humiliated," former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. was sentenced to three years' probation Friday on conflict-of-interest charges for using his judicial chamber and staff to run his personal real estate business.
Berry, 73, described the stress of being investigated for nine years, suspended from the bench for four months, and then criminally prosecuted for conduct that dated back more than a decade.
"I've been dragged through the newspapers; all my family has been through this," Berry told Judge S. Gerald Corso. "I can deal with a lot of things. This is nothing compared to what I've seen a lot of other people go through. Whatever happens here happens. I'm just anxious to get this behind me."
Berry wiped tears from his eyes when he told Corso he was undergoing tests for a recently discovered heart ailment.
Berry was a veteran criminal defense lawyer and a judge from 1996 until he retired in September 2012. His illegal use of his judicial chamber and his staff was first reported by The Inquirer in 2007.
Corso, a senior Montgomery County judge assigned to preside over the case, called the sentencing "a sad day. It's a sad day for the city of Philadelphia, a sad day for the community, and a sad day for the court."
Berry faced up to seven years in prison on the jury's July 22 verdict on theft of services and conflict of interest. But state Deputy Attorney General Daniel J. Dye urged the judge to hand down a lesser sentence of probation to 12 months in prison.
"There was no evidence of malfeasance inside the courtroom," Dye said. "He used the resources of his office for his own personal gain."
Before he sentenced Berry, Corso cited testimony from 11 defense witnesses, including Berry's estranged wife and adult son and daughter. Those witnesses described Berry's generosity and activism in his North Philadelphia neighborhood, his work as a mentor to young people, and his work feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving and on Martin Luther King's Birthday.
Corso said Berry "clearly violated the public trust" and adversely affected the "perception of the integrity of the judiciary."
Nevertheless, he said, Berry's conduct "probably was an aberration," adding, "I'm not sure you contemplated that your activities were criminal."
The sentencing does not end Berry's legal problems. Corso said he would schedule a hearing to decide the restitution Berry must pay. Dye estimated restitution at $110,880.
For Berry, the bigger threat is that conviction 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 Superior Court. Both said there had been no change in the status of Berry's pension.
In pretrial motions, the defense lawyers argued that Berry had already been investigated and punished by the Court of Judicial Discipline, which suspended him for four months without pay in 2009.
The Attorney General's Office charged Berry with the crimes in May 2014, almost two years after he retired and five months after his suspension.
The prosecution's key witness was Berry's longtime secretary, Carolyn Fleming, whom he hired when she was 17 after a summer high school internship in his law office.
Fleming testified that she became steadily more involved in Berry's financial affairs, helping manage his law office and rental properties, and followed him to a job at the Criminal Justice Center after he was elected judge in 1995.
That all changed in 2007, Fleming testified, after several articles in The Inquirer revealed that Berry had operated his real estate business from his chambers, using his taxpayer-funded staff.
An investigation by the Judicial Conduct Board followed and Fleming was contacted by investigators. Fleming testified that Berry removed all his real estate files from his 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. They also presented character witnesses, including several lawyers, who vouched for Berry's character and honesty.