Before former state Sen. Shirley Huntley admitted to stealing money from a nonprofit agency, she spent decades working to improve the lives of those who live in southeast Queens, according to dozens of people who wrote letters asking a federal judge to show her compassion and mercy.
"Please do not let one act paint the whole picture or write the whole book on Mrs. Huntley's character," said Leroy Gadsden, president of the NAACP Jamaica Branch.
In his letter, Gadsden cited Huntley's work on behalf of students, tenants and workers. More than a thousand residents of southeast Queens are working at the Resort World Casino in Jamaica today, he said, because Huntley supported a campaign to ensure that jobs would go to residents.
The letters were written by educators, police officers, civic and church leaders, former campaign workers as well as friends, neighbors and family members. All of them asked U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein in Brooklyn to sentence Huntley to community service. Thursday, Huntley was sentenced to a year and a day in jail.
"What has happened to Mrs. Huntley is tragic, and out of context for someone who I have known so many years for standing in the vanguard; on picket lines, mentoring youth and adults, and fostering such a positive image in her community," said Dianne Glass, a schoolteacher who has known Huntley for a quarter-century.
Born in Riverhead, she is married to Herbert Huntley, a retired public school employee who counseled at-risk youths. The couple have one child.
Six years later, City Councilman James Sanders Jr. beat her in the Democratic primary that led to his election to the 10th Senate District seat last November.
Huntley was first elected to public office in 1993 when, at age 53, she ran for the school board in Queens District 28, which included predominantly white Forest Hills in the northern half of the district and Jamaica in the south.
In 1996, she was sharply critical of other board members who refused to follow the schools chancellor's recommendation that a teacher be fired for making derogatory remarks about minority students.
"Jail time will not change anything, but having her donate countless hours back to the community informing young people on the proper way to perform their civic duty would have a bigger impact on those we seek to influence down a productive path," Fisher said.
Perhaps the most heartfelt letters came from Huntley's family, including one written by her 13-year-old granddaughter, Taylor Mariah Corley, of Brooklyn.
Her grandmother, whom Taylor calls "Ma," spoke to the little girl about her jail prospect.
Taylor said she feared that her grandfather will get "sick" if her grandmother is not home with him. Taylor, an eighth-grader, said her grandmother is needed at home to help the little girl's mother, Pamela Huntley-Corley, who has a brain aneurysm.
"Please help us Judge Weinstein," Taylor said. "While I am writing this letter for my Ma it is really more for me. Please do not take Ma away from me. Please give her a second chance. If you let Ma stay at home I will be responsible for her and take care of her. Please forgive my Ma the way that she forgives me and the way that God forgives us all."