- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

Jayson Williams beat the rap, at least to this point. Facing up to 55 years in prison for accidentally killing chauffeur Costas “Gus” Christofi in Williams’ home and then trying to cover it up, the former New Jersey Nets center avoided the most serious charges and was convicted on four lesser counts, none of which carry mandatory prison sentences.

Prosecutors since have decided to retry Williams on one of the serious charges, reckless manslaughter, which hung the jury by an 8-4 vote to acquit. This surprised some observers. It will be an even bigger surprise if Williams is eventually found guilty and spends time behind bars.

The same might be said for Los Angles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who is on trial for sexual assault in Colorado. Many athletes (and former athletes) who run afoul of the law are wealthy enough to afford top-notch legal counsel that helps them avoid conviction and/or prison. Money talks, athletes walk.

But there are other means of escape.

“Juries can be as star-struck as the rest of American society,” said civil rights lawyer Lisa Bloom, a host on Court TV. “So much of American culture is based on celebrity worship. Tabloid shows, newspapers, magazines. It’s a huge commercial conglomerate, and to think that juries differ from the rest of us is absurd.”

Perhaps money can’t buy happiness. But it can buy good lawyers. Beyond that, there is a widespread perception that because of the fame and adulation they often receive, athletes are afforded special treatment by the legal system.

In many cases, the perception is the reality.

“I think we’re a society where everybody is struck by celebrity,” said Rich Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. “No matter how thorough the pretrial questioning, there are people who will be dazzled in the courtroom, whether it’s O.J. Simpson or Jayson Williams or Kobe Bryant. Maybe their jaws won’t be open, but they will be thinking of their athletic feats.”

• • •

No one disputes that when an athlete goes on trial, the courtroom is infused with star power, but not all legal experts agree on its effect. Lawyer Roger Cossack, who is covering the Bryant trial for ESPN, said an athlete who is found guilty is subjected to the same sentencing guidelines as everyone else.

“I can tell you this,” Cossack said. “If Kobe Bryant is convicted in Colorado, he is going to prison. There is the possibility of a 10-year probation, but in this case it’s not gonna happen. He will go to prison.”

The big question is whether Bryant will be convicted, whether the evidence will be compelling enough and whether Bryant’s status will carry any weight. One thing is certain: He does not have the home courtroom advantage.

“I think it would be very difficult to convict Woody Allen in New York and Joe Montana in San Francisco [hypothetically], and it was impossible to convict O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles,” Cossack said.

Ah, O.J. The perfect marriage of sports, crime and nonstop media coverage. June12 marks the 10th anniversary of the murder of O.J.’s wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. We all know what ensued: The pursuit of the white Bronco, Simpson’s arrest and the ultimate celebrity trial.

To many old enough to remember, O.J. was not merely the guy who ran through the airport in those Hertz commercials or appeared in movies. “The Juice” was the quintessential football hero, a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback at Southern California, an All-Pro with the Buffalo Bills who set the NFL single-season rushing record. An entire nation, if not much of the world, sat transfixed by the proceedings, which ended with Simpson’s acquittal of criminal charges.

Simpson benefited from an impressive (and expensive) defense team led by Johnnie Cochran, a prosecution effort most observers found to be lacking and, of course, his name. Bloom went further, saying that Simpson was known to have beaten Nicole several times, “but he basically got a pass because he was O.J. Simpson.”

He was, said Cossack, “the prince of the city.”

Jayson Williams achieved no such stature. But he was popular in his own way, in his own smaller world. Bloom, and others, noted how jury members smiled at Williams during the trial and referred to him by his first name.

“It shows a certain degree of intimacy,” she said. “One of the things the celebrity machine gives us is intimacy with celebrities. There are people who buy into the concept that celebrities are our friends, that we know them, and that because they are celebrities they must be innocent. It’s a huge burden for prosecutors.”

Williams also had the financial means to settle with the Christofi family in civil court, which prevented them from testifying during the criminal proceedings.

“If Jayson Williams was an ordinary defendant, he would have gone down,” Bloom said. “I can say this categorically.”

Not so fast, said Rob Becker, a lawyer and legal analyst for Fox Sports Net. True, Williams was an attractive-looking defendant, but that, Becker said, “is not the same thing as someone being prejudiced in his favor for being an athlete.”

More importantly, said Becker, both the judge and the prosecution made mistakes that Williams’ defense team was astute enough to exploit.

“Rich people can hire lawyers who can file a zillion motions,” he said.

• • •

To be sure, some athletes, retired or active, do go to prison. Sometimes the evidence is too overwhelming.

Former Dallas Cowboys guard Nate Newton is serving time after pleading guilty for conspiring to sell marijuana — lots of it. Boxer Mike Tyson was locked up on a rape charge. Another boxer, Riddick Bowe, was just released after serving 17 months for kidnapping. (Of all athletes, boxers, because of what they do and their menacing personas, seem to be cut the least amount of slack.)

Being rich and relatively famous did not help former Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth, who was convicted of plotting to kill his pregnant girlfriend and sentenced to more than 18 years in federal prison. Or did it?

“Eighteen years for a homicide — that’s pretty short,” Bloom said.

Becker said it is too simplistic to attribute an athlete’s acquittal or lack of a tough sentence to the power of celebrity. Every case is different. Darryl Strawberry was seen as coddled by the system because, despite frequent arrests, he never went to prison until he violated his probation.

“But most of his problems mainly required medical treatment,” Becker said, referring to Strawberry’s problems with drugs. “His sentences made sense.”

Ray Lewis? The Baltimore Ravens linebacker was charged with taking part in the murder of two men following Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta in 2000. He was convicted only of obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor that did not result in prison time.

“I studied that case carefully,” Becker said, “and it was clear to me from Day1 that Ray Lewis was innocent of the murder. And I believe then as I believe now, that the reason he was indicted is because it’s good publicity for a district attorney to indict an athlete and get a conviction. I’m not denying there are other situations where another athlete might get a break, but it pretty much evens out.”

That’s the flip side for athletes. Most at one time or another have complained about being a “target” for a variety of reasons, including personal profit (i.e. blackmail or exploitation) or resentment. In 2002, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Allen Iverson, who had been arrested before, was busted on 14 felony and misdemeanor charges after supposedly storming into an apartment with a gun, looking for his wife.

Added up, the charges could have landed Iverson in the slammer for 65 years. Instead, they were dropped, mainly because two witnesses somehow failed to testify. District Attorney Lynne Abraham told reporters that this was a common occurrence, not a perk of being a famous athletes.

“The only reason I’m standing here is because this case received such inordinate attention by the press,” Abraham said.

Iverson’s defenders claimed he was being singled out for his so-called “thug” appearance and lifestyle. But Bloom saw it another way.

“That judge, in particular, was star-struck,” she said. “He made comments that he was a fan. Court personnel got autographs after the case was thrown out. It was so unprofessional.”

• • •

Sexual assault cases involving athletes always generate headlines. One reason is the apparently alarming frequency with which they occur. But what happens after the arrest? In a study last year, USA Today determined that of 166 sexual assault allegations over 12 years involving 164 athletes, 22 resulted in trials and only six in convictions. Another 46 athletes plea bargained. According to the report, the 32 percent conviction rate was far below that of the national average.

But Lapchick, who has closely studied the issue, said the problem is not the few convictions involving athletes but the few convictions for sexual assault, period.

“The conviction and sentencing rate of people for such crimes is shockingly low,” he said. “In the case of sexual assault or rape, alleged perpetrators hardly ever go to prison.”

Given the scandal at Colorado University, it is small wonder that cries of favoritism for athletes are heard. Since 1997, nine football players have been accused of sexual assault, but none has come to trial. In addition, it is being reported the university fosters a culture that intimidates women who have been assaulted.

Kathy Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, recently said young women at the school are afraid to report sex crimes because of intimidation and interference by the athletic department. Redmond went so far as to say that a “rape culture” exists at the school, a charge vehemently denied by university officials.

Lapchick said he was shocked at the recent reinstatement of Colorado football coach Gary Barnett, given the assault accusations and reports of sex, drugs and alcohol being an integral part of the recruiting process.

“This created the biggest example I can think of, of a university being out of control,” Lapchick said.

Sometimes, though, perceptions prove false. Minnesota Vikings receiver Randy Moss is one of the few athletes who has served jail time, 30 days for an assault during high school and a subsequent probation violation. Yet when he knocked down a traffic control officer with his car on a downtown Minneapolis street in 2002, only to see the charges reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor (and community service), it appeared he was getting preferential treatment.

Not so, according to Minneapolis police spokesman Ron Reier, who said he had Moss’ case in front of him and went through it, detail by detail, to explain why the proceedings and outcome were proper. According to the facts and the eyewitness accounts, Reier said, Moss was traveling at an extremely slow rate of speed and did not appear to want to hurt the officer.

“I understand the line of thinking,” Reier said, meaning that athletes get a break. “One of the things I’ve noticed after years in law enforcement is, the more resources a person has to fight a ticket or an arrest, the more likelihood that person is gonna get off with a lesser charge.”

If one of those resources is an athlete’s name, the likelihood might be even greater.

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