This is the second post in a four-part series that looks at some recent headline-grabbing stories in the world of federal sentencing. Although various limits and recommendations exist to help guide sentence decisions, federal judges are ultimately empowered to choose an appropriate punishment. That discretion is sometimes a tool for carefully tailored justice - but it also raises serious concerns in other cases.
Last week, a former NFL star received a prison sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy charges involving Texas mortgage fraud. This defendant undertook what he hoped would be a successful post-football second career in real estate. When his partners took the business in an unexpectedly questionable direction, all of them ended up in trouble.
However, given this defendant's status as a high-profile celebrity athlete, some wonder whether his fame earned him an unnecessarily and unfairly harsh penalty.
The defendant, former Cowboys linebacker Eugene Lockhart, is the tenth defendant to receive a sentence in an alleged mortgage fraud scheme to recruit "straw buyers." Prosecutors claimed that Lockhart helped lie to mortgage companies to receive inflated loan amounts on a number of properties. Lockhart received a 54-month sentence for his role in the conspiracy.
Two other defendants' sentences deserve some attention. The "ringleader" or "architect" who developed and organized the plot received a 10-year sentence. Court documents referred to a second co-defendant as the "right-hand man" who played an apparently integral part alongside the ringleader. Despite this man's role as a leader, he only received four more months in prison than Lockhart.
To further highlight the difference between the two defendants, Lockhart accepted a plea deal while the second defendant took his case to a long trial.
Even though the "right-hand man" played a significantly bigger role and did not plead guilty, the two defendants will serve almost identical terms. Some observers are concerned that this is another example of a court wanting to avoid charges of celebrity favoritism.
This could be evidence that celebrities and other high-profile defendants face a harder fight to receive a fair outcome. Courts might decide to err on the side of "throwing the book" at these defendants because of intense media attention.
Professional athletes, celebrities and other high-profile defendants should consider these risks when considering a defense lawyer. A lawyer with extensive experience in similar high-stakes and media-intensive cases can help develop an effective strategy to compensate for the risk of becoming a public example.
Source: Dallas Morning News, "Former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Eugene Lockhart gets 54 months in $20 million mortgage fraud case," Kevin Krause, Dec. 12, 2012