In sentencing former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo to a prison term far shorter than many had expected - 55 months - U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter said he had considered the other Philadelphia politicians who had been hauled off to prison.

Then he got into his time machine.

While federal prosecutors pointed to recent tough sentences imposed in other public corruption cases - notably, a 10-year prison term for former City Treasurer Corey Kemp - Buckwalter looked quite a bit farther back.

He brought up former State Sen. Henry "Buddy" Cianfrani, who was indicted in 1977, and former City Councilman Jimmy Tayoun, who faced federal charges in 1991.

And that, perhaps more than anything else that was said during the day-long, drama-packed hearing, indicated where Buckwalter was heading. Cianfrani was sentenced to five years in prison; Tayoun got 40 months.

But Cianfrani, a South Philadelphia Democrat who was replaced by Fumo in the Senate, and Tayoun, who replaced the imprisoned Leland M. Beloff in Council in 1986, were old-school politicians who took the hit of federal charges and admitted their wrongdoing rather than opt for the kind of high-drama trial that ended in March with Fumo being convicted on 137 counts.

Buckwalter said Fumo - who, over a legislative career that spanned three decades, became one of the most powerful Democrats in the state - didn't commit crimes of violence.

"It's not murder. It's not robbery," said Buckwalter. "It's not the selling of a political office."

In fact, he was convicted of ripping off two nonprofits, the Independence Seaport Museum and Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods; having Senate employees do political and personal jobs on state time; and obstructing justice in a scheme that involved the destruction of thousands of e-mails sought by the FBI.

While Assistant U.S. Attorneys John J. Pease and Robert A. Zauzmer implored Buckwalter to think about the importance of deterring other politicians from engaging in corrupt acts, Buckwalter seemed to suggest that a long sentence probably wouldn't do much good.

"There have been a whole lineup of Philadelphia politicians who have gone to jail," he said, and "it doesn't seem to deter that criminal conduct."

Pease and Zauzmer urged him to consider two other recent sentences: the 15-year prison term imposed on former Independence Seaport Museum head John S. Carter, and the 61/2-year sentence given to former City Councilman Rick Mariano. Fumo's conduct, they argued, was much worse than the crimes in those cases.

But in the end, Buckwalter clearly saw the good side of Fumo - the hard-charging, hard-working politician who brought gobs of money to Philadelphia.

"In my opinion, you were a serious public servant. You worked hard for the public," Buckwalter said to Fumo.

The judge said he also reviewed the 300 letters in support of Fumo - including letters from Gov. Rendell, two former state Supreme Court justices, and prominent lawyers, as well as letters written by average citizens.

Buckwalter said he'd even received a handful of letters from people who "didn't speak very highly of" the former senator.

Yesterday, it was Fumo's supporters who packed the courtroom.

There were lawyers and constituents, friends and family, judges and people from the neighborhood. And there were strong words of support from State Sen. Tina Tartaglione, lawyer Malcolm Lazin, and Fumo's fiancee, Carolyn Zinni, and his youngest daughter, Allie, 19, a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

All lauded Fumo - and at times the proceeding seemed more like a testimonial dinner than a sentencing hearing in federal court.

The judge said he had given careful consideration to the case - the nature of the crime, the character of the defendant, the good works he did as a legislator, the importance of deterring similar behavior.

Perhaps Buckwalter's background as a Lancaster County district attorney and Common Pleas Court judge also helped shape his thinking in fashioning a sentence in the decidedly white-collar crime of corruption.

The judge had set the stage for his sentence last week when he issued an order that dramatically cut the prison sentence that could be imposed under federal sentencing guidelines from up to 27 years to no more than 14.

Buckwalter said he was glad that the guidelines were no longer mandatory.

"What happened in the federal system was, the guidelines became virtually mandatory, and that wasn't good," Buckwalter said. "It gave us little or no discretion."

Buckwalter said that he certainly considered the guidelines, but he also considered Fumo's "exceptional" job as a state legislator and concluded that Fumo deserved credit for his good acts.

As Fumo accepted the hugs of well-wishers at the end of the long day in court, defense lawyer Dennis J. Cogan stepped outside.

"It's never a good day when a client goes to jail," said Cogan, though he said Fumo was "somewhat relieved" by the sentence.

Cogan, along with defense lawyers Samuel Buffone and Peter Goldberger, had worked mightily to coax Buckwalter into a more lenient sentence - and most would say they were quite successful.

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.