Commentary

Fame and funds didn't help Burress

Originally Published: August 20, 2009
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

Money, top attorneys and celebrity can come in handy when you're accused of a serious crime. Ask Ray Lewis. Ask Mark Chmura. Ask Kobe Bryant. Not always -- ask Michael Vick -- but money, lawyers and fame often help smooth the way through the legal process.

For Plaxico Burress, none of them worked. His guilty plea to a count of attempted criminal possession of a weapon Thursday got him a two-year prison sentence.

Burress used his money to hire one of New York's top criminal defense lawyers. The attorney, Benjamin Brafman, tried just about everything. He stalled and delayed, hoping to make a favorable deal with the district attorney. When that didn't work, he tried an imaginative and highly unusual desperation move, sending Burress into the grand jury in a quest for sympathy. The jurors listened to Burress' testimony, and then charged him with three crimes when they could have charged him with only one.

Now, it appears the failed legal maneuvering might have cost Burress his one chance to salvage his NFL career. If Burress and Brafman had recognized and accepted early in the process that the former New York Giant would be doing serious time in a penitentiary, they could have made this same deal months ago and gained a head start on the time of incarceration.

[+] EnlargePlaxico Burress
AP Photo/Seth WenigHe had the lawyers and the money. Unfortunately for Plaxico Burress, he also had the gun.

One of Vick's few smart moves in his attempts to defend himself against dogfighting charges was his decision to start serving his sentence several months early. He began to serve time even before he was sentenced, allowing him to be released in time to attempt to revive his career in the coming season.

Burress no doubt now wishes he had done the same thing. If, for example, Burress had entered a plea of guilty in January or February after his November arrest, he would already be well into his sentence and could have been out in time to play the 2010 season. Instead, after time-consuming and ultimately futile attempts to make a better deal, Burress will now be serving at least 20 months of a 24-month sentence and won't be available to play football until the 2011 season. For a wide receiver, the added year of inactivity could be disastrous.

But it was Burress' celebrity that did the most damage to his case. He caught the winning touchdown pass for the Giants in the final minute of the 2008 Super Bowl and became an authentic and recognizable hero in the nation's biggest market. But the recognition turned toxic when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, shortly after Burress' arrest, demanded that he be prosecuted to the fullest extent of New York's tough gun control law.

The terms of New York's gun laws are bad enough. Possession of a gun in the city is a felony. It is a rule that is absolute. There is little room for discussion. If you're caught with a gun, you face a minimum mandatory sentence of 3½ years. And it was obvious that Burress was guilty from the moment his gun accidentally discharged in the Latin Quarter nightclub. He was instantly in serious trouble.

When Bloomberg made Burress the poster child for gun control enforcement, there was little that Brafman was going to be able to do.

Then, any room for maneuvering disappeared when legendary Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, in a highly unusual public statement about a pending prosecution, decreed that the best offer Burress would ever see was two years of incarceration.

It is a clear sign of the desperation of Burress' predicament that a lawyer as highly skilled as Brafman could do so little for him. In the court hearing Thursday, the best that Brafman could offer in an attempt to minimize the sentence was the assertion that Burress would never again reside in the New York area.

For Burress, the money, the celebrity and the high-powered lawyer made no difference. If anything, they hurt him. Anyone who had made the same mistake and went to court with a public defender could have had the same outcome.

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.