Commentary

Legal cases will play out in 2009

Updated: January 5, 2009, 2:05 AM ET
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

In courthouses across the United States in 2009, major sports figures will face issues involving guns, steroids, lies, dogs and dollars.

Some things are certain. Plaxico Burress faces indictment and prison time on gun charges in New York. Barry Bonds faces trial on perjury charges in San Francisco. And Michael Vick faces the challenges of redemption and possible reinstatement in the NFL.

Other things are less certain: Will Roger Clemens face charges of perjury and contempt of Congress? Will Mark Cuban face indictment on insider-trading charges?

Here's a quick look at what might happen on these legal issues in 2009:

Plaxico Burress: Facing felony gun charges that carry a minimum mandatory prison sentence of 3½ years, Burress has few options. His attorney, Benjamin Brafman, once triumphed in the 1999 trial in which rap mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs faced a similar gun charge, but the gun control laws of New York have changed. The clause that allowed Combs to escape has been eliminated, and the liability for possession of a gun in New York is nearly absolute.

In addition to the powerful language of the gun law, Burress faces the wrath of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who within hours of Burress' arrest was demanding that the Giants wide receiver be prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law." Bloomberg's demands have turned Burress' celebrity as a Super Bowl hero against him. Burress' only alternative seems to be a plea for mercy, hoping that the New York district attorney would agree to a lesser sentence. It's a long shot, but it might be his only shot.

By the time Burress appears in court March 31, the grand jury will have indicted him.

Barry Bonds: After nearly five years of investigation and two court-ordered revisions of the charges against him, Bonds will have his day in court March 2. And it might be a bit anticlimactic. Although the investigation and the charges have forever altered Bonds' place in baseball history, the outcome of the perjury trial might be of little importance. Several others have already pleaded guilty as the result of the BALCO investigation, and the prison sentences have been light. If Victor Conte -- who produced and sold the undetectable steroid that is the centerpiece of the perjury charges against Bonds -- was sentenced to only four months in prison, does Bonds face any jail time?

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianEven if he is convicted of perjury, it's possible that Bonds could avoid prison time.

Bonds' legal team is now working out agreements with federal prosecutors on the evidence that will be allowed in the trial. Indications are that the sides will agree on major issues that would have been contested if more were at stake.

With the real possibility of no prison time even if convicted, Bonds is free to try to convince the jury that he did not know the legality of the drugs he was using, hoping the jurors will find him not guilty. If he succeeds, he will enjoy some minimum level of vindication. If he does not succeed, he could easily end up with a few months of probation and nothing more.

Michael Vick: The official date for Vick's release from a federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., is July 20, but he could be back in Virginia in a halfway house long before then.

The challenges that await him are enormous. He must somehow convince NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to allow him to return. It will not be easy. Aside from the brutality of his dog-fighting operation, Vick was betting large sums on his dogs and their fights. Any form of gambling is anathema to the NFL, and Vick could face a suspension beyond the time he has already served. Even worse, Vick lied about his dog-fighting kennel in a conversation with Goodell in the early stages of the investigation.

Vick's creditors continue to pursue him even though he has filed for bankruptcy. They are suspicious of his claim that he is insolvent after somehow spending $18.2 million in the 18 months before he admitted his guilt in the dog-fighting prosecution. They are particularly suspicious of a series of checks made out to cash that totaled $908,500 in 2007, and a spending spree of $3.6 million between the day he entered his guilty plea (Aug. 27, 2007) and the day he went to prison (Nov. 19, 2007). In addition to attempting to make peace with his creditors, Vick might pursue litigation against a series of conniving financial advisors who bilked him in late 2007.

Roger Clemens: If Clemens looks back on 2008 as a rough year with the Mitchell report, serious allegations of his use of human growth hormone and multiple accounts of marital infidelity, the new year could be even worse. Charges of perjury and obstruction of justice are possible. Both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Clemens' testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives.

Clemens attempted to rehabilitate his tattered reputation with a defamation lawsuit against his former trainer, Brian McNamee, hoping for a judgment that Clemens had been truthful and McNamee had lied. The suit is not going well. McNamee has presented powerful evidence that his statements in the Mitchell report were part of a federal investigation. If a federal judge in Dallas agrees with McNamee, then McNamee is immune to a defamation case. It would be another humiliating loss for Clemens. A decision could come shortly.

Mark Cuban: On Jan. 20, Cuban must respond to assertions from the Securities and Exchange Commission that he's guilty of insider trading. The SEC case is a civil case and could be resolved if Cuban paid $750,000 -- the amount of the stock market loss he avoided with his timely trade -- and a fine. It's a paltry sum for Cuban, and it would end a humiliating episode for the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Although Cuban has not discussed it publicly, it appears that the insider trading charges ended his attempt to buy the Chicago Cubs.

But the settlement of the civil case might not be the end for Cuban. He still might face criminal charges as the result of the same trade. The trade in question occurred on June 24, 2004. Federal prosecutors have until June 24 of the new year to file charges against him. Will they? Cuban insists he is innocent.

On top of these legal developments in 2009, the remaining possibilities include a blockbuster fall from grace that no one can now anticipate. Who would have predicted, for example, the dog-fighting charges against Vick, the gambling charges against disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy or even the insider-trading charges against Cuban? Who will it be in 2009? This could be interesting.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.