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Justice Prevails as Plaxico Gets Fair and Well-Deserved Punishment

Aug 20, 2009 – 8:48 PM
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Lisa Olson

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Plaxico BurressNEW YORK -- Beyond their occupation and celebrity lifestyles and physical similarities, Plaxico Burress and Donte' Stallworth really don't belong in the same sentence. They committed different crimes in different states, and if both men are lucky enough to ever again play in the NFL, it will be interesting to see how the league skirts the pesky issue of convicted felons associating with other felons.

Until then, enough with the clueless comparisons between Stallworth's light sentence in Florida for committing vehicular manslaughter while drunk and Burress' heavy plea agreement for criminal possession of a weapon in New York. Just because Florida officials allow wads of cash to buy leniency, that's no reason other states can't legislate their own version of justice.

Don't want to abide by New York laws? Don't carry a gun, with a holster or without, in the city. There is no wiggle room in the tough law that has been on the books for a couple of years now, a law that most civic-minded citizens approve of wholeheartedly. If we didn't, we'd elect politicians who'd make our state more like Florida or Arizona. Here, if you're caught carrying a gun -- if, for example, the .40-caliber semiautomatic Glock you believed was licensed in Florida slips from the waistband of your sweatpants and discharges in a crowded Manhattan nightclub, the bullet narrowly missing a security guard and wounds you in the thigh -- you are going to be prosecuted like any other perp who believes the rules don't apply to him.

Money can't hide you from the law, thank goodness. Celebrity can't shield you from the consequences, hallelujah. Burress, the veteran wide receiver whose legendary playoff performances two seasons ago led the New York Giants to a remarkable Super Bowl win, pleaded guilty Thursday to attempted gun possession and will soon begin serving a prison sentence of up to two years.

Did Burress get a raw deal? Only if you fall into the erroneous trap of comparing the sad tales of Burress, Stallworth and even Michael Vick, just because they happen to share the same employer. Is Burress being singled out because he's another athlete behaving badly? Only if you think he ought to be treated differently than all the other mopes arrested for the same crime in the same city.

If you listen long enough to Benjamin Brafman, Burress' lawyer, you'll start to believe his client is a few good deeds away from sainthood. Brafman is adept at spinning the truth and misdirecting the facts. He is a very loquacious, famous lawyer known for defending mobsters, rappers and Wall Street tycoons, and he wins far more often than he loses. The more he talked on the steps of the court house Thursday after Burress' surprise plea agreement, the more Brafman made it sound as if poor Plaxico was the only citizen tourist in the history of New York to ever be charged or sentenced for carrying a piece in the city.

"This is a very sad day, because I think a very good man, who is a brilliant athlete, is unfortunately going to spend 20 months in prison," Brafman said. "If Plaxico Burress were not a high-profile individual, there never would be a case. If he were just John Q Public, he could have walked out of the club and he never would have been arrested. This was never a level playing field.",feedConfig,localizationConfig,entry&id=546500&pid=546499&uts=1250815117
The Plaxico Burress Saga
On April 3, the Giants released Plaxico Burress, ending his turbulent four-year stay in New York. Click through to see more on how Burress' relationship with the Giants unraveled.
Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images
Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images

Plaxico Burress Saga

    On April 3, the Giants released Plaxico Burress, ending his turbulent four-year stay in New York. Click through to see more on how Burress' relationship with the Giants unraveled.

    Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images

    David Tyree had the highlight reel catch of Super Bowl XLII, but Burress had the game-winner. It was easily Burress' top moment as a pro, but what followed was far less rewarding.

    Jim McIsaac, Getty Images

    Unhappy with his contract situation, Burress skipped the Giants' mandatory 2008 summer mini-camp and then sat out much of the preseason with an ankle injury. Then, shortly before the start of the regular season, the Giants agreed to a five-year, $35-million contract extension with the disgruntled receiver.

    Evan Pinkus, Getty Images

    No mandatory mini-camp, no preseason, no problem. In New York's Week 1 win over Washington, Burress made 10 catches for 133 yards.

    Seth Wenig, AP

    In a stunning Week 6 Monday night loss to Cleveland, Burress scored a touchdown but was otherwise shut down, all part of a sub-par season that saw Burress fail to top 100 yards receiving in any game other than the opener.

    Diamond Images / Getty Images

    Burress had a bit of a meltdown in the Giants' Oct. 19 win over San Francisco. The NFL fined him $45,000 for his actions in that game, when he verbally abused an official and threw a ball into the stands. That came just two weeks after the Giants suspended Burress for their Oct. 5 game for missing a team meeting.

    Evan Pinkus, Getty Images

    In an easy New York win over Baltimore during Week 11, Burress tweaked his hamstring, which had him set to be inactive in Week 12 against Washington - until he suffered a more serious leg injury.

    Kathy Willens, AP

    Out at a club, just hours after it was reported that he would be inactive against the Redskins because of his hamstring injury, Burress suffered a gunshot wound to his leg - self-inflicted by accident.

    Stephen Dunn, Getty Images

    Burress surrendered to police Dec. 1 and was charged with two counts of illegal handgun possession after shooting himself in the leg at a nightclub. The Giants also suspended him for the rest of the 2008-09 season.

    Louis Lanzano, AP

    Burress found himself the subject of a lawsuit in late December, allegedly for striking a woman with his car. Then in March, Burress was cited for four traffic tickets on one stop - speeding, improper display of tags, improper lane change and improper window tinting.

    Chris McGrath, Getty Images

It was all hogwash, from the lawyer who hasn't done Burress many favors throughout the entire process. It took prosecutors more than six months to even convene a grand jury in the case, with Burress and Brafman both insisting he'd never do jail time for an incident in which only Burress was hurt. Again, the New York law doesn't make amends for intentions or casualties. It's simple and airtight: criminal possession of a weapon carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 1/2 in prison.

The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services would not release specific statistics, but a spokesman did say that fewer than 10 percent of the people in New York City charged with criminal possession of a weapon were convicted of that charge. Some end up convicted of a lesser charge, others plea down and still others convince a jury of their innocence. Just as prosecutors were about to pull their offer from the table Thursday, Burress took the middle route. He plead to a lesser charge, like thousands of other people charged with the same crime.

Burress was awarded every opportunity and avenue given John or Josephine Public stuck in similar situations. In January, prosecutors came to his legal team with a plea deal that would have put Burress behind bars for 15 months, allowing him to be ready for the 2010 season. Now he'll be pushing 34 years old when he exits Rikers (or, if he's lucky, a facility not quite so stocked with warring gangs), and out of football for 30 months. The NFL will offer him a second chance at employment, as it should, and maybe by then the league will have developed its own feeder program from jails and prisons.

A public defender fresh out of law school might have encouraged Burress to take the January deal, especially considering the facts of the crime were never in question. Burress long ago stopped denying he brought the unlicensed semiautomatic Glock into the Latin Quarter Nightclub the night of November 28, 2008. He needed the gun for security, said his lawyer, having purchased it legally in Florida. So that makes it OK to disregard New York laws? It's not as if Burress couldn't have spent some of the $35 million the Giants awarded him just months earlier on bodyguards to provide licensed security. It's not as if Burress didn't surround himself with people who might know the law. His wife, now pregnant with his child, is a lawyer.

"This is a perfect example of how bad judgment sometimes has very bad consequences," Brafman said.

NFL FanHouse TwitterThat's the line Brafman encouraged his client to push when Team Plaxico opted to take a highly unusual route and let Burress testify before a grand jury once it was finally convened. (Grand juries rarely take that long for John Q, by the way.) Burress appealed to the panel for "compassion and understanding." There had to be at least a few Giants fans sitting in that room who remember the delirious celebrations Burress inspired when he caught the Super Bowl-winning touchdown against the Patriots. Who knows, maybe Burress would connect with a panelist wearing a Harry Carson jersey.

"In order to humanize him, they needed to see who he was and what this man was about," Brafman had said, of his tactic allowing his client to appear before the grand jury. "My hope is now that they have seen and heard him, they will have a tougher decision."

Yep, Brafman hoped the grand jury would embrace Burress, the high-profile individual who brought great joy to the city one January night, and ignore the black-and-white statute. Those of us who have covered Burress will agree -- he can be charming and engaging. He's never been one to follow pesky team rules like arriving on time (the Giants' time always being five minutes ahead of real time), but he'd shrug, pay the fine and ignore another rule the next day. His irreverence was kind of cute.

But when the grand jury looked beyond Burress' charisma and indicted him on two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon and one count of second-degree reckless endangerment, the game was all but over. If convicted at trial on all counts, Burress could have received up to 15 years. His ex-teammate Antonio Pierce would have been called to testify about his role in whatever happened that night after the gun went off in a room filled with people. Hospital workers would have to explain how Burress checked in under the name Harris Smith, told them he had been shot at an Applebee's restaurant and, once some of the workers recognized him as a Giants superstar, agreed to not report the gunshot wound, as required by law. Certain Giants officials would have been grilled about their role in those wee hours, when everyone seemed to be looking for blankets to cover up.

Brafman was right: This never was a level playing field.

"When I think about what [Burress] threw away just by making some poor choices, hopefully it's a lesson for the rest of our players to learn." Giants co-owner John Mara said. "The laws in New York are pretty strict for this type of offense and rightfully so."

It was a highly contentious case with grandstanding on both sides of the lines. Mayor Michael Bloomberg took to the airwaves and made Burress the poster child for gun control enforcement, the mayor's pet project. The Manhattan District Attorney's office couldn't agree on how Burress should be prosecuted. The case stalled and stuttered as Brafman, celebrity lawyer, collected his fees.

The only thing that never wavered was the law.
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