The Wright Sentence?

Much has been written about the Thomas Wright controversy around these parts. Many, including me, called on him early to resign. Most (not including me) were pleased with the legislature's swift and certain action to expel him. I argued, perhaps wrongly, that the undertone of racism tainted the entire process.

So now let's move to sentencing, where Radio Girl does her typically excellent job on the analysis.

70 months: Wright's state sentence for three felony counts: obtaining a $150,000 mortgage under false pretenses, plus pocketing $7400 in charitable donations from Anheuser-Busch and Astra-Zeneca.

63 months: The federal sentence of former state House Speaker Jim Black, who pleaded guilty last year to corruption. Black admitted buying a vote and taking a half-million-dollar loan under the table from lobbyist Don Beason to finance a real estate deal. The state gave Black a million-dollar fine, which he could afford to pay (thanks in no small part to Beason’s “financing”) and 10 concurrent months, but no additional jail time.

48 months: the federal sentence for former state Representative Michael Decker, who admitted selling his vote – and with it, the Speakership of the NC House – for $50,000 and a job for his son. Presiding Judge James Dever called this case an "epic betrayal."

What they got out of it:

Black: A downtown Charlotte property, financed with Beason's bridge loan, plus tens of thousands of dollars garnered from multiple bathroom meetings.
Decker: $50,000. His son did okay, too.
Wright: No building and maybe a few thousand in cash.

So how is it that fraud in the service of buying a house nets you more prison time than fraud in the service of buying the House? Seriously – is it really more heinous to deceive a banker than a voter?

Laura Leslie suggests that it may have been Wright's refusal to apologize that got him the longest sentence. Maybe so, since Black and Decker groveled all the way to the bank. But there's something else Black and Decker had in common: their skin color. Maybe I'm wrong about Wright and my suspicion that racism shaped the severity of his sentence. But I'm not wrong about the bigger picture.

Comments

Dome

The Dome picks up Laura's analysis, too.

That's exactly right

Prosecutors offer reduced sentences all the time for guilty pleas.

Wright's skin color probably has nothing to do with his sentence unless he wasn't offered a similar sentence reduction because of it. Now, that would be a good question to ask. I would be curious to know if the prosecution offered him a plea deal. Does anybody have that information? Is is something they would even make public?



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Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Yes and no

Yes for sure for Decker - he pleaded guilty and cooperated with the prosecution, too.

But that's not exactly true for Black - in the state's case, he entered an Alford plea, which is a way of saying, "I'm not admitting to this, but I see you have enough evidence to convict me anyway."

Black did plead guilty to the federal charge of accepting an illegal gratuity...but I'm told he didn't cooperate much, either.

Thanks for the compliment, James!

Laura Leslie
(Barkeep, Isaac Hunter's Tavern)

Laura Leslie
blogger/reporter for WRAL @NCCapitol
Former Barkeep of Isaac Hunter's Tavern

Laura, do you know if Wright

was offered a plea deal to avoid trial?

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



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Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Sorry, I don't know that. (n/t)

Laura Leslie
(Barkeep, Isaac Hunter's Tavern)

Laura Leslie
blogger/reporter for WRAL @NCCapitol
Former Barkeep of Isaac Hunter's Tavern

using charity's money?

I am not the most informed on this case, but I think a jury might find taking money for a charity and then "reimbursing oneself" for charges he claimed he had spent, but did not keep records to show, was especially offensive. I recall this about the Jack Abramson case - people thinking they are helping poor kids or something, and it just lines his pockets.

That whole defense of not taking responsibility for actions that at a minimum show the dumbest accounting of anyone since Enron did not help.

At the same time - I know what you mean, James. There is a comfort zone around seeing a black politician as more guilty - it is easy for a jury. I don't deny that. Still, he got his hand caught in the cookie jar and his explanations were pathetic.

Sometimes guilty is, well, guilty.

You make a very good point

Taking money from a charity will have a certain taint in most people's eyes. Those of us here might think vote buying is worse, but we weren't on the jury.



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Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

What you say is true, but

The jury had no input into the sentencing - just the verdict. The judge made the decision on how the sentence
would be structured.

Of course, what you say could also be applicable to the judge....

Laura Leslie
(Barkeep, Isaac Hunter's Tavern)

Laura Leslie
blogger/reporter for WRAL @NCCapitol
Former Barkeep of Isaac Hunter's Tavern

This sentence was not about skin color

And the jury wasn't involved in sentencing.

This was about an absolute refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing, and what I think is worse, Wright's exploitation of the race issue for the sake of lining his own pockets -- and then compounding the offense by mounting a cynical "you're picking on me because I'm black" defense that is especially repulsive to people who work hard on behalf of those who really *are* being treated unfairly on the basis of race. That's what makes this especially heinous in my book.

The damage done to the cause Wright professed to espouse is terrible, and the setback for people who are victims of racial prejudice consists in the heightened sense of doubt in the minds of the villagers who have heard "wolf" cried one time too many.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing
-Edmund Burke

Well, it's not like racism

Maybe I'm wrong about Wright and my suspicion that racism shaped the severity of his sentence.

doesn't exist in the courtrooms of our fair state; it takes about fifteen minutes of observation before it becomes apparent.

I would say "go check it out", but it's an election season and judges like to pontificate and show excess compassion during these times. Go after the election is over.

Hell yes, the right sentence

Cutting and pasting from "Isaac" at the Dome:

Re: Why did Wright get the longest sentence?
Submitted by Isaac136 on April 9, 2008 - 10:31am.
Not to mention that he used money that was supposed to be about helping out the downtrodden to help himself. And that his defense was so scornful of the process: "I am waiting for my bank statements" !!!! He means, of course, the bank statements that he has had well over a year to request. This is is tantamount to slouching in front of the judge with your shirttail out and saying "Oh, I forgot to look at my speedometer." Not exactly an attitude of concern, let alone remorse.

He admitted on the stand that he used his position as a state representative to obtain a letter that was itself a fraud, yet refused to acknowledge there was anything wrong with that. Instead, he made multiple statements to the effect that he was a victim of others' evil-doing, that this matter of his breaking the law was irrelevant, and that it was only brought to light because he had supported a GOP candidate in New Hanover County. It's an insultingly stupid assertion that the Democrats went after Thomas Wright to punish him, when obviously the addition of Wright to the list of Democrats who have gone down in flames only hands the GOP an issue in May and in the general election.

Most of all, the crying of "ya'll are racists!" as a substitute for explaining his ongoing flauting of the laws of the state that he SWORE to uphold should offend the hell out of everyone -- especially those who care about racism.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing
-Edmund Burke

Thanks for the link

Last time I tried to figure out sentencing I totally messed it up. I think I'll stick to other stuff.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



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Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Betts asks what's on my mind.

Via the Dome, I found out that Jack Betts has a different take.

Those of us who have covered trials before have noted that defiant defendants seem to be in extra jeopardy of longer sentences when they refuse to own up to crimes after they’re convicted. That raises another fairness factor: If you don’t agree that you’re guilty, you may spend even more time in prison. Is that fair or unfair?

I confess I don't know much about sentencing. I confess that the logic of pleading guilty to get a break on your prison terms seems bizarre beyond belief. You do something wrong and once you're caught you get all remorseful so you can reduce your jail time? It might make sense to lawyers who do this stuff for a living, but as an outsider, I have real trouble with the logic.

pleading

I don't think it's that simple. I think the effect of a plea at sentencing has a lot to do with the level of evidence and the defense potential -- not whether as a matter of principle you stonewalled or not.

In Wright's case, he had virtually no defense at all, and the evidence was pretty damned cut and dried. The behavior that eventually caught up with him had been going on a long, long time, too. It wasn't as though he just lost his head in one instance of bad judgment. Yet he refused to take any responsibility and persisted that it was he who was victimized.

It's almost as though he pursued a course that was in direct conflict with any of the best advice he could have received -- and I have no doubt that he got better advice than he took. That he wound up with someone like Doug Harris as his attorney suggests that he had trouble finding anyone with sense to mount the kind of defense Wright insisted upon. It was a very, very bad idea.

Also, notwithstanding Betts' discussion of the different chances any defendant has in federal as opposed to state court (my observation has been that the feds are usually tougher), the social relevance of the crime is also something a judge in either court considers. In this case, Wright's sentence was more than fair.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing
-Edmund Burke

Jail

The stated purpose of jail is to reform. So if you take that purpose, and you assume that the verdict is accurate then the earlier they show they are willing to repent and change their ways the less need there is for jail.

There are a lot of ifs in there and assumptions made by the judicial system as a whole. But I think the logic makes a lot of sense.

"Keep the Faith"

"Keep the Faith"

More from Radio Girl on Wright's sentence

Laura Leslie with more analysis on Wright's sentencing:

What strikes me isn't the disparity between federal and state courts, or plea deals, or skin color, or party. It's the fact that, as far as I can tell, our laws at both levels carry harsher sentences for lying to banks than to voters. Not to be pollyanna about it, but that just doesn't seem right. And it's not just a matter of moral intangibles, either. The folks who run the legislature get to decide how the state will spend about $20B every year. That's public money - and it's a lot more dough than the average loan officer controls.

Makes sense to me. So maybe it's not about remorse or pleas or whatever. Maybe it's just another example of the preferential status corporations enjoy in our state.

discretion

There is some. Perhaps not as much as there ought to be, or perhaps too much, depending upon a person's perspective of what judges are expected to accomplish, but if you think that perceived remorse and pleadings aren't part of the package, ya need to pay more attention to American jurisprudence.

Judges shouldn't run for election, but they do, so public perception counts quite a bit.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing
-Edmund Burke