A federal judge ruled Thursday that former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi can leave prison early, citing his deteriorating medical condition after battling cancer and the higher-quality care he will be able to receive at home with his family.
DiMasi, 71, can leave federal prison in North Carolina as soon as Tuesday, under the care of his wife, although they must immediately go to their home in Melrose and report to probation officials. DiMasi must serve two years of supervised release, the first six months of it confined to his home, though he may leave for emergencies and for medical and religious reasons.
Citing “extraordinary and compelling reasons” to release DiMasi early, US District Judge Mark L. Wolf said he hoped his decision would focus attention on the issue of compassionate release for chronically ill federal prisoners. The US Bureau of Prisons had listed DiMasi’s release date as November 2018, based on calculations for accumulated good time.
“The court finds that it is permissible and appropriate to grant the motion and order DiMasi’s early release,’’ Wolf wrote. “It hopes that this decision will not prove to provide unusually favorable treatment for DiMasi, but rather that it will contribute to the enlightened and appropriately compassionate administration of justice for comparable inmates in the future.’’
In court filings and a hearing over the last month on the petition for early release, Wolf had wrestled with the question of whether DiMasi was receiving favorable consideration. He questioned whether the Bureau of Prisons considered him terminally ill and whether he was benefitting from political connections other inmates do not have.
In the decision Thursday, he cited the testimony of a doctor who said DiMasi’s health was deteriorating and not likely to improve.
Shortly after being sentenced to eight years in prison on corruption charges in 2011, DiMasi was diagnosed with throat cancer, then faced prostate cancer three years later. Wolf said DiMasi’s release was justified under a federal compassionate release program that allows for the release of inmates who are severely ill, elderly, and have completed more than half of their sentence.
DiMasi is not terminally ill, a point Wolf made in the ruling, and the prostate and tongue cancers he suffered are in remission. But doctors have found that the chemotherapy treatment for DiMasi’s tongue cancer severely affected his throat and his ability to swallow. He has had choking episodes and has had his throat expanded in medical procedures nine times to help him swallow and to prevent food from entering his lungs. Doctors have recommended that he eat pureed food, and they say he may eventually need feeding tubes.
In his ruling, Wolf said DiMasi could still receive care in prison but the care he could receive at home would be better for his health, the very purpose of a compassionate release program.
Lawyers for DiMasi and his wife, Debbie, released a statement Thursday saying they were grateful for the decision, as well as for US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s support for the petition for DiMasi’s release.
Debbie DiMasi told the Globe “I’m just thankful, today is a good day.” She said she sent an e-mail to her husband alerting him to the decision and was looking at plane flights.
“We are thrilled that Sal will be coming home next week,” Charles Rankin, one of DiMasi’s lawyers, said in the statement. “Given his medical condition, he is very deserving of this early release.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who served as House budget chief under DiMasi, said he was grateful.
He said he wrote to DiMasi while the former speaker was behind bars and plans to visit him after he is released.
“I’m very pleased, especially, obviously, with the timing of it, with Thanksgiving and the holidays coming up,” DeLeo said.
DiMasi, who represented the North End, was sentenced by Wolf to eight years after being found guilty of political corruption for helping a Burlington software company win $17.5 million in state contracts in exchange for kickbacks. A codefendant, lobbyist Richard McDonough, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Joseph P. Lally Jr., a salesman for the company, Cognos, cooperated with prosecutors and testified against DiMasi in exchange for an 18-month sentence.
Wolf said in his ruling that he calculated the eight-year sentence based on several factors, such as DiMasi’s political power as House speaker, the need to deter others from committing similar deeds, and the totality of the scheme. One of DiMasi’s close friends, his financial adviser Richard Vitale, was acquitted of charges that he received $750,000 from Cognos and established a credit line of hundreds of thousands of dollars for DiMasi — an alleged plot to funnel the money back to DiMasi — but Wolf also factored that alleged scheme into the sentence.
In his ruling Thursday, Wolf ordered that the DiMasi family cannot receive any form of payment from Vitale. He also said he cannot have any contact with McDonough.
The Bureau of Prisons has been criticized for a poor record of recommending the release of prisoners under the compassionate release program, and in hearings Wolf questioned why DiMasi was being recommended for release.
Wolf on Thursday noted that Bureau of Prisons officials initially rejected DiMasi’s petition for early release and that they only reconsidered in July after Ortiz expressed her support for DiMasi’s petition.
“This was a deviation from the process prescribed by the bureau’s regulations,” the judge said, adding that “it suggests that the decision to file the motion for a reduction of DiMasi’s sentence was driven more by the judgment of lawyers than of medical professionals.”
But Wolf said a doctor still determined that DiMasi’s release was “probably” appropriate.
“The doctor characterized DiMasi’s condition as chronic, serious, deteriorating, and unlikely to improve with treatment,” the judge said. “He stated that DiMasi’s ability to function while in custody was diminished.”
The judge said he hopes the decision encourages the Bureau of Prisons to better consider the release of other inmates who qualify for early release.