Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell asked a judge for mercy for his wife, as well as himself, before being sentenced to two years in prison for public corruption Tuesday.
His sentence was much lighter than what prosecutors wanted and likely foreshadows similar treatment for Maureen McDonnell when she is sentenced next month for her role in the bribery scandal, legal experts say.
"Her circumstances will be considered individually, and I would expect her sentence to be somewhat lower than the ex-governor since she did not breach the public's trust to the degree that her husband did,'' said Jeff Bellin, a professor at the College of William and Mary Law School and a former federal prosecutor.
Another good sign for Maureen McDonnell is that U.S. District Judge James Spencer tossed out one of her convictions last year, leaving only eight -- three fewer than her husband.
"This all adds up to what's likely to be a fairly minimal sentence for her,'' said Scott Fredericksen, another former federal prosecutor and now a defense attorney.
The McDonnells were convicted in September of corruption for taking more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from wealthy vitamin entrepreneur Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting his products.
Prosecutors originally sought a sentence of more than 10 years for Bob McDonnell, whose lawyers recommended three years of community service.
Family members and friends who packed the courtroom wept softly as the former governor, once on the short list for Mitt Romney's running mate, told Spencer in a strong but somber voice that he couldn't "fathom any deeper humiliation'' than standing before him convicted of felonies.
The judge noted the outpouring of support McDonnell received from more than 400 people who wrote letters pleading for leniency. He said McDonnell "is a good and decent man who has done a lot of good in the public arena'' but that his crimes warranted prison time.
"It breaks my heart, but I have a duty I can't avoid,'' the judge said.
McDonnell, who held his head in his hands and sobbed when he was convicted four months ago, was stoic as Spencer handed down the sentence. Some of the supporters' tears quickly turned to smiles.
"We certainly came in thinking we could be facing a whole lot worse,'' the former governor's sister, also named Maureen McDonnell, later told reporters.
Outside the courthouse, McDonnell thanked the judge for mercy and vowed to fight his convictions on appeal.
"I've hurt myself, my family and my beloved people of Virginia and for that I am deeply, deeply sorry. But I will also say to the great people of Virginia that I have never, ever betrayed my sacred oath of office in any way while I served as the governor of this great commonwealth,'' McDonnell told reporters.
Before sentencing, defense lawyers called a parade of character witnesses to enumerate McDonnell's good qualities - his integrity and compassion for the less fortunate in particular - and good deeds in both public and private life.
Several witnesses said a lenient sentence was warranted because McDonnell had already suffered significantly from the fallout of a highly public and embarrassing investigation and trial. Former Democratic Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said that if not for McDonnell's legal troubles, he would be remembered as one of Virginia's finest governors and would be a strong candidate for president.
"He's been punished, been punished indelibly,'' Wilder said.
Wilder received a loud round of applause after sparring with prosecutor Michael Dry and pointing out that Williams, who testified under immunity for the prosecution, "walked away clean.''
Dry said Williams was in a different category.
"The Mr. Williamses of the world are a dime a dozen. Corrupt governors are not,'' Dry said.
The couple's defense strategy at trial depended in large part on convincing the jury that their marriage was so strained that they could not have conspired to squeeze bribes out of Williams. Many witnesses pinned most of the blame on Maureen McDonnell, who was portrayed as emotionally unstable and eager to accept gifts form Williams behind her husband's back - a theme repeated by some of those who wrote letters urging leniency for the former governor.
Spencer said those who blame Maureen McDonnell are "dangerously delusional,'' providing perhaps another hint about the thinking that will shape his decision when she is sentenced.
McDonnell is the first Virginia governor, and the 12th nationally, convicted of corruption, federal officials said.