Burress case: No legal free pass for athletes any more

The ex-New York Giant accepted a two-year jail sentence as part of a plea deal Thursday. His case follows that of Michael Vick, who spent 18 months in prison for dogfighting.

Seth Wenig/ AP
Former New York Giant Plaxico Burress (r.) and his attorney Benjamin Brafman arrive at Manhattan criminal court in New York, Thursday.

Ex-New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress's decision Thursday to accept two years' jail time in connection to a weapons charge is a new twist on an old story.

Athletes have often found that their celebrity to be a benefit when it comes time for a judge to swing the gavel. Now, Mr. Burress and former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick – who last week joined the Philadelphia Eagles after serving 18 months in prison – have found that the opposite is increasingly true.

In the era of the ill-behaved athlete, the traditional deference to celebrity is being turned on its head. Prosecutors and judges in such cases are sometimes using the national spotlight to make a statement, legal experts say.

The offenses of Burress and Mr. Vick were hardly trivial: Burress illegally brought a gun into a nightclub and shot himself in the leg, and Vick ran a dogfighting ring. But Burress's lawyer, for one, suggested that "if Plaxico Burress were not a high-profile individual, there never would be a case."

Speaking generally, some others agree.

"No doubt there are cases where judges, jurors and even prosecutors are star struck," says Lisa Griffin, a former United States Assistant District Attorney. "But it's also true that, partly because there's so much more attention on these cases than there was in the past, that both prosecutors and judges are more attentive to so-called 'expressive' consequences, meaning the signals sent by prosecutions and sentences."

For instance, in the case of Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, who was convicted in 2008 for lying to prosecutors about her role in a doping distribution ring, "the judge specifically said in handing down her sentence that he felt it was an example to her fans, to children, and to the public," says Ms. Griffin. "There's no question that having a big name ... can cut against you."

When Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was photographed using a marijuana-packed water pipe this spring, it was hardly a significant law-enforcement issue, but police were obliged to get involved because of his celebrity, legal scholars say.

The Burress ordeal began in November at the Latin Quarter nightclub in New York. An unlicensed gun tucked into Burress's waistband slipped down his leg and went off. The bullet pierced Burress's right thigh and narrowly missed a nearby security guard.

After months of haggling with Burress' attorney, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau insisted on at least two years in prison for the man who caught the winning touchdown in the 2008 Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.

On Thursday, Burress pleaded guilty to one count of attempted criminal possession of a weapon. He is likely to serve 20 months of a two-year sentence and could face suspensions from the NFL.

Burress, who was released from the Giants after the incident, says he wants to play in the NFL after he has served his sentence. Given Vick's recent return, the NFL and football fans might be willing to forgive the incident – but perhaps only after the former Giant does some hard time.

"There was a public safety dimension to the Burress case," says Griffin. "Yes, shooting yourself is a sympathetic crime, but carrying a loaded weapon into a nightclub puts other people at risk. You're not talking about petty theft."

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