Burress's legal Hail Mary pass falls short

He wanted to persuade a grand jury of his innocence. Instead, it indicted him on three separate charges. Jail time is now a distinct possibility.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Former NFL player Plaxico Burress gives a statement outside of Manhattan criminal court after testifying before a grand jury in New York on July 29.

Football teams take risks all the time ... fourth and goal ... the Hail Mary pass.

But former New York Giant Plaxico Burress's decision to testify to a grand jury – the legal equivalent of a Hail Mary pass – has fallen short. On Monday he was indicted on two weapons charges and one count of reckless endangerment.

Having failed to impress the grand jury with his remorse, he must now must consider a plea deal from the district attorney – reported to be two years in jail – or go to trial next year.

Mr. Burress got into trouble Nov. 29 when he and teammate Antonio Pierce went to a nightclub and a gun Burress is alleged to have been carrying went off, wounding Burress. The case got even wider attention since no one called the police – not the nightclub or the NFL. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, part of an antigun group of mayors, called for Burress's prosecution.

The Burress case is only the latest example of professional athletes running afoul of the law and sometimes becoming involved with violent activities. Last month, former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick was released from prison after serving time for his role in dog fighting. In 2000, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis pleaded guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice in connection with a double murder case. In 2007, then-Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones was suspended without pay for the entire season for his connection to shooting at a Las Vegas strip club. In an opinion page article on FoxNews.com, one analyst estimated more than 50 percent of NFL players own guns.

"They are in the public eye and their profile is extremely high," says Dan Lebowitz, the director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sports in Society. "We are talking about very young people with a lot of public scrutiny and some handle it better than others."

Mr. Lebowitz says his organization views the transgressions as teaching and leadership opportunities. "For example, there is the underlying message that carrying a gun could have negative consequences that are life altering," he says. "To his credit, Burress feels pretty badly about it and has tried to be public about it in a way that could send a positive lesson to youth."

Almost every year, there is some high profile crime involving an athlete, although organizations such as the National Football League have said in the past that criminal incidents are down.

But in the book "Pros and Cons: The Criminals who play in the NFL," authors Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger write that 20 percent of the 500 NFL players they surveyed for the 1996-1997 season had been charged with a serious crime.

Burress, one of the top receivers in the NFL, is best remembered for the game-winning catch in the 2007 Super Bowl, when the Giants beat the previously undefeated New England Patriots, 17-14. But the following year, he said he was unhappy with his $25 million contract. The Giants gave him a five-year contract extension for $35 million in 2008.

Legal experts say Burress had hoped a personal appeal might prevent the New York grand jury from indicting him. "He will have presented to the grand jury a positive story regarding why he needed the gun and how he got it," says Jim Cohen, a criminal law professor at Fordham Law School in New York.

Now, Burress's lawyer will have to decide whether to put the former football star on the witness stand. "He might testify," says Mr. Cohen. "The grand jury testimony might have been an opportunity for his lawyer to see how his client would do."

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