Saturday, January 12, 2008
Former Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones received a six-month prison sentence from U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas for her guilty plea to two counts of making false statements, the maximum recommended term under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for the offenses. Jones was interviewed by federal agents in 2003 and again in 2006, the first time about the Balco (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) steroids operation and the second time about a check-kiting scheme involving her former boyfriend, sprinter Tim Montgomery. In the Balco case, she denied ever receiving steroids and even filed a defamation suit against Victor Conte, the founder of Balco, for his statements about her use of performance-enhancing drugs; that civil case was eventually dropped, for obvious reasons.
The Sentencing Guidelines range was 0-6 months, and I speculated earlier (here) that she might receive probation or home confinement. The prosecutors did not recommend any particular sentence other than staying within the Guidelines recommendation, and when Judge Karas floated the possibility of giving her consecutive sentences for each count of conviction or to exceed the recommended sentence, the prosecutors filed a letter (available below) urging the court to give a sentence within the 0-6 months range and not any higher. While in other white collar crime cases prosecutors have taken a more aggressive stance on sentencing, here they urged the court to stay within the Guidelines and gave the impression that a sentence with no incarceration would be acceptable.
Judge Karas' indication before sentencing that he was considering a longer prison term made it likely he would sentence Jones at the high end of the Guidelines range. In explaining the sentence, the Judge stated that he wanted to send a message to other athletes who do not adhere to the values of "hard work, dedication, teamwork and sportsmanship." In addition, Judge Karas said, "Athletes in society have an elevated status, they entertain, they inspire, and perhaps, most important, they serve as role models." An AP story (here) discusses the sentencing.
After the Supreme Court's decision in Gall granting district courts broader discretion in sentencing, individualized factors now play a greater role in the punishment determination. But, should an athlete's celebrity status be a basis for imposing an increased sentence in order to "send a message" to others? Jones did not plead guilty to using performance-enhancing drugs, although she had now admitted to using them, so the message is not one tied to the underlying crime.
It is interesting to consider Jones' six-month prison term in comparison with other sentences handed down in white collar crime cases. Mark Kipnis, a former general counsel for Hollinger International who was convicted along with Lord Conrad Black for his role in a scheme to defraud the company, received probation after a sentencing hearing held the very day Gall came down. The fraudulent scheme cost the company approximately $6 million, and Kipnis was the attorney whose job was to protect his client, the company. I. Lewis Libby's thirty-month sentence for obstruction of justice and perjury was commuted by the President because it was excessive, and he had at least as high a profile as Jones when he breached the public trust. Even in the Balco prosecution, Conte received a four-month prison term for his role in the distribution of illegal narcotics, while Jones' sentence is 50% higher for lying to agents in the case.
In the world of sentencing reasonableness in federal cases fostered by the Supreme Court's decisions in Booker and Gall, it is hard to say that a sentence is "unfair" in comparison with another because the focus now is on an individualized assessment of culpability. One result of this new -- or perhaps return to -- sentencing discretion is that there will be greater disparity, and the "luck of the draw" regarding which judge a defendant draws takes on added importance. The luck of this judicial draw will see Jones beginning a six-month prison term in March, and she will have to serve virtually the entire term because there is no good-time credit for a sentence of less than a year. (ph)