The letters started arriving within the month.
The real Michael T. Toole, who was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison Friday, was not simply the former Luzerne County Common Pleas Court judge who agreed to plead guilty for selling his judicial seat for the use of a beach house in New Jersey, they said. He was not just the man who failed to report an attorney’s referral fee on his taxes.
He was, his sister-in-law said, a “perfect example of what every parent strives to achieve in life.” Befelled by “misjudgments and injudicious behavior,” he was a “beaten man” whose “punishment has already begun,” others wrote.
He was “Big Mike,” “Uncle Mike,” “Judge Michael Toole.”
As each letter arrived — some dated as early as Jan. 7, 2010 — Senior U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Richard P. Conaboy was offered a fuller picture of Toole, who admitted to his crimes Dec. 29, 2009, painted by those who knew him outside of his criminal conduct.
Before Thursday, however, Conaboy kept the letters he received away from the public eye. White-collar defense attorneys across the state have said those letters play a key role in a judge’s sentencing decision, especially in light of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case that granted judicial officers far greater discretion when it comes to doling out punishment.
That point was put into play when Conaboy opted to release those letters on Thursday — a rare move, attorneys said — and sentence Toole on Friday for his pleading guilty to corrupt receipt of a reward for official action.
U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Peter J. Smith said the sentence was “appropriate” and that he agreed with a statement Conaboy made about Toole’s conduct being a “stain on the nation’s judiciary.”
“Today’s sentence is a major step toward correcting the harm done by the defendant’s actions,” Smith said in a press release.
Toole’s attorney, Frank W. Nocito of Kingston, Pa., declined to comment on his client’s sentencing and Conaboy’s decision to release the letters.
He did, however, file a brief earlier this month arguing against the release of the letters, noting they were “intensely personal” and to be considered a part of a defendant’s presentence report, which is confidential.
Federal prosecutors, too, argued that some letters should be kept from the public.
Toole, for instance, is a recovering alcoholic and both parties agreed that letters from fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members and Toole’s treatment counselor should remain confidential.
Conaboy agreed, but most everything else was introduced into the public record.
What remained were 141 letters, nearly all of which requested leniency for the former judge.
White-collar defense attorneys were noncommittal on how that amount ranks in relation to other cases and there’s no easy way to tell. Most times, such letters aren’t released to the public.
A notable exception was former state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo’s federal corruption trial.
Regardless, they can be important to a defendant in several ways, attorneys said.
“What you’re trying to do is say, ‘Look, people can make mistakes,’” said Al Flora, a Wilkes Barre, Pa., attorney who represented former Luzerne County Common Pleas Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. in his federal corruption case earlier this year. “‘Even good people, it can happen.’ When you sentence, you want to look at the whole person.”
Ellen C. Brotman of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads in Philadelphia said that’s accomplished by creating a “narrative arc.”
“What we need to show is we’ve learned from our mistakes, that there’s a potential for growth, that there has been growth,” Brotman said. “A letter from someone who has known the defendant forever, that’s good to show context. But when somebody says, ‘I just met him after he went through this process and can see he’s not proud and arrogant’ … that’s very valuable information for a judge. It speaks to remorse, it speaks to an ability to change.”
Those mitigating factors, said Michael A. Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor who now practices white-collar defense at Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia, are especially important in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in United States v. Booker .
In that case, the high court ruled that mandatory federal sentencing guidelines were no longer mandatory for judges, Schwartz said.
“They’re incredibly important,” he said.
All of that, it seems, is what Toole and his attorney sought to accomplish with those letters.
There were letters from his brother, a high school basketball teammate, a friend from the days when Toole’s son was in Cub Scouts. Others were from a former teacher, a person involved with his judicial campaign and a defense attorney who appeared before him.
They arrived in January 2010, just weeks after Toole appeared in front of Conaboy to admit his guilt on the record and they arrived in March, just weeks before Conaboy issued an order scheduling Toole’s sentencing.
Mostly, though, the letters were dated in the early part of 2010, as the news of Toole’s fall was still fresh.
There’s a reason for that.
“It’s really the sooner, the better,” Brotman said. “Sometimes, you get letters in that touch on personal things about your client that you don’t know that could be really important mitigation and you need time to develop. Whatever you can get, you want that earlier. Always earlier.”
It can be, though, that letters received at the end carry the concluding punch.
Said Brotman: “No help is ever refused — whenever it comes in.”
In Toole’s case, those letters came from individuals he met while working as a shift supervisor for a small beer distributor, Beer Belly’s Beverage, in State College, a job Toole got only after he entered his plea agreement.
It was a job that required sweeping the parking lot of cigarette butts, cleaning bathrooms and sleeping in his car, one person wrote.
The pay, that person continued, required a “paycheck to paycheck” lifestyle — far different from being “at the top, wealth, power, and fortune.” •