NEW YORK — When former junk bond king Michael Milken is sentenced, his fate will be decided by a soft-spoken newcomer to the federal bench, U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood.
As part of the biggest case Wood has handled as a judge, she will preside over highly unusual hearings due to start Thursday--in effect a mini-trial intended to determine if Milken was a habitual law breaker.
Wood, 46, has been a judge only since mid-1988. She arrived on the bench with virtually no experience in criminal law. But so far she has drawn superlative reviews from lawyers who have appeared before her, who say that she has shown exceptional intelligence, grace under pressure and uncommon fairness.
Several of Wood's friends, such as former law partner Molly Boast, say that in deciding Milken's sentence she probably won't be influenced by the extraordinary publicity the case has received. Nor, they say, will Wood be unduly moved by the hundreds of pro- and anti-Milken letters that have flooded into her chambers.
"She's got so much character of her own that, as hard as this one is, she will do the right thing," Boast said. "And it's not because anyone has had any cause to influence her."
Milken, 44, the former head of the Beverly Hills-based junk bond department of Drexel Burnham Lambert, will be sentenced soon on the six felony counts to which he pleaded guilty in April. The counts include conspiracy and fraud involving stock market manipulation and other illegal securities transactions.
He faces a maximum of 28 years in prison. Because the case was filed before new federal sentencing guidelines went into effect, the judge has wide discretion on how much prison time, if any, she will impose.
Wood hasn't been around long enough to gain a reputation for tough or lenient sentences. Besides the Milken case, few if any of the cases she has handled are white-collar crime cases. But Milken's lawyers may find some cause for hope in the sentence she imposed in the case of a New York fish dealer. He was convicted of making interstate telephone calls in which, among other things, he threatened to rip out the eyes of a customer who he contended owed him money.
Defense lawyer Charles Haydon said his client faced up to 20 years in prison for interstate threats by phone. Instead, Wood sent the man away for six months. "She didn't give this guy the kind of sentence she could have," Haydon said.
The slight, youthful-looking judge rarely raises her voice in court. Yet lawyers seem to be on their best behavior in front of her. One reason, several said in interviews, is that her decisiveness and obviously sharp intelligence make them loath to get out of line.
"She doesn't have to yell," said Debra L. Raskin, a lawyer who appeared before Wood in an age discrimination matter. "I think her secret is being very smart and cutting through the baloney."
In interviews, several lawyers praised Wood's decision to hold the upcoming Milken hearings. The government has demanded that she take into account evidence of additional crimes that Milken allegedly committed beyond the six to which he pleaded guilty. Federal law allows a judge to do so, but only if she first holds hearings in which evidence of the crimes is presented.
In a similar case involving a senior executive of the investment firm Goldman, Sachs & Co. who prosecutors claimed was extensively involved in insider trading, another federal judge in the same courthouse recently refused to hold such hearings. That judge said he would only consider the counts that the executive pleaded guilty to because, he said, hearings inevitably would turn into a full-blown trial, defeating the purpose of a guilty plea and wasting court resources.
Wood, however, said she felt that justice wouldn't be served if she did that in the Milken case. She hit upon a way to hold the hearings but tightly limit their scope. She ordered that they begin almost immediately and gave lawyers a strict time limit on examining their own witnesses. Wood instructed prosecutors not to attempt to prove each additional crime that they contend Milken committed but to focus on just a few transactions as an indication of Milken's character and propensity for breaking the law.
"She's very clever," said Steven Kimelman, a criminal defense lawyer who was in court when Wood ruled on the hearings. "She handled herself as if she had been on the bench for many years."
He also said she seemed unfazed by the big-name defense lawyers who appeared on behalf of Milken and others in the case.
A considerable number of celebrities, titans of business and California public officials have written in to ask her to go easy on Milken when she finally imposes sentence. Other letter writers, outraged by what they view as Milken's pivotal role in the financial excesses of the 1980s, have demanded that the judge show no mercy.