The Confusing Case of Plaxico Burress

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Apologies for my inattention to this blog. I got married (to a lovely girl) in Kauai and then got swine flu. I’m happy to report that the former was a much more pleasant experience.

The following doesn’t really pertain to the LSAT directly (or even indirectly), and because any attempt to relate it might seem disingenuous, I won’t try. But some familiar news has irked me and the people I ask don’t resonate my concerns, so I’m going out to you, our loyal MSS readers. You’ve probably considered this in passing, but in the way many thoughts are, it was likely lost in tumult of your daily life.

I’m talking, of course, about the sentencing of Plaxico Burress, the (former) New York Giants wide receiver. If you don’t follow the NFL, then you should know that he was indicted on two counts of criminal possession of a weapon for carrying a concealed handgun into a club. He inadvertently discharged the gun into his thigh, injuring only himself.

Verdict: Burress accepted a plea which requires him to serve two years in prison, with another two years of supervision afterward.

Commentary: What apparently happened was that the gun slipped down through the waistband of his jeans. When Burress groped his thigh to catch it from sliding further it accidentally went off. But apparently he wasn’t brandishing the gun, or threatening anyone. It was a total Homer Simpson. It sounds about as intentional as tripping up the stairs.

Disclaimer: He’s not a favorite of mine, but I don’t mind watching him. I think of him as Terrell Owens without the (limited) redemption he found with the Cowboys, or Randy Moss without the even greater redemption he found in New England. I do, however, believe that the NFL (and the NBA for that matter) is turning into a sewer, and that thugism is a disturbing, rising current in the US. When the highest compliment you can give a man is to call him a “gangsta,” we really shouldn’t be surprised when our heroes begin carrying guns.

Disclaimer aside, the severity of the sentence strikes me as being oddly disproportionate. It seems too harsh, and I can’t see the justification. The most common explanations for the sentence that I’ve seen are the following:

Plaxico is black, and some people believe that we live in a country where racism is at best implicit in our social consciousness and at worst explicitly written into our federal sentencing guidelines. In the eyes of these people, the harshness of Plaxico’s sentence is the result of racism.

Other people believe that because Plaxico is a celebrity/athletic star he was thus “made an example of” to deter similar future actions in high utilitarian fashion.

Still others believe that neither racism nor making-an-example is at work in this case. Instead, this view contends that what Plaxico did was really bad and his sentence was proportionate to the crime he committed.

These strike me all as being patently false, and I think they’re belied by the judgments given to some other unfortunate celebrity behavior. I’d like to consider three recent cases.

Chris Brown
R&B artist Chris Brown pleaded guilty to beating his girlfriend, high-profile recording artist Rihanna. While this might not be Farrah Fawcett in The Burning Bed, neither was it a one time shove during a heated argument. A recent CNN story cites an LAPD report claiming that on another occasion Brown strangled Rihanna (in a headlock) so severely that she began to lose consciousness and that he threatened to kill her.

Verdict: Brown was sentenced to six months of community service, a year of counseling, and five years probation. Translation: he has to pick up litter on the highway for six months, attend some weekly meetings, and if he stays out of further trouble, he won’t do any time at all. (I know people who got worse for DUI’s).

Commentary: Guys hitting girls just isn’t cool, as in no bueno. Don’t get confused by Gina Carano or Cristiane Santos in MMA. It doesn’t matter how tough or cruel a woman can be, it’s just not a line we want to cross or even blur.

Disclaimer: I don’t know Chris Brown’s work, and I don’t feel too badly about that. I kind of know that Umbrella song from Rihanna. I don’t know most of the words, but I admittedly don’t change the station as quickly as I probably I should when it comes on the radio. I suppose she’s kind of hot, but not remarkably so, and certainly not enough to induce greater sympathy from me.

Michael Vick
Everyone’s favorite person to hate is now the Eagles’ backup quarterback. If you haven’t heard about this, you couldn’t be reading this blog because you’re living in solitary confinement in upper-Mongolia. Nevertheless, to recap, Michael Vick, once successful Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback, pleaded guilty to operating a large-scale dogfighting ring. While there was the issue of financing an interstate gambling conspiracy, the deeper issue here is that he trained dogs to fight viciously, presided over these fights, and actually hung and drowned the poorer performing canines. The details of the case suggest that Vick tortured dogs in a deeply disturbing manner.

Verdict: Vick was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison (that’s less than two years for the mathematically challenged). After serving that sentence, he was prosecuted on criminal state charges for dogfighting in Virginia. Although he was sentenced to three years, this sentence was suspended for good behavior and a $2,500 fine. Translation: he did 23 months in the federal big-house, and no more.

Commentary: Whether or not you feel for the dogs, brutal treatment of animals has been established as a precursor to sociopathic behavior. Vick didn’t just fall in with a bad crowd and make bad decisions. The lurid details of what he is alleged to have done to these dogs suggests that he is, or at least was, unwell.

Disclaimer: I saw Michael Vick play when I was in graduate school at UVa, but I didn’t follow him closely with the Falcons. I certainly think he should be allowed to play in the NFL and I hope that through playing with the Eagles he can makes something meaningful of his life. I generally think those people who want him to interminably suffer constitute an insatiably angry mob, whose lack of sympathy is itself disturbing and worthy or further investigation.

Floyd Maywether Jr.
You’ll be excused for not knowing about this (unless you watch HBO’s 24/7, which you should) because Mayweather hasn’t been charged and isn’t even a suspect. However, his Rolls Royce was present in the parking lot of a Las Vegas roller-skating rink (that’s right, big time) the night a shooting recently took place, although no one was hurt. According to the Associated Press, one of the victims claimed Mayweather threatened him 10 minutes before the shooting. Police later searched Mayweather’s home and car, recovering two handguns, ammunition and bullet proof vests.

Verdict: None, as Mayweather was never charged with anything and apparently isn’t even a suspect.

Commentary: Look, it’s sketchy. Who gets into a gun fight at a roller-skating rink? And who still drives a Rolls Royce? Really. As one would expect, this roller-skating rink is frequented by children, which makes gun fighting extra bad. Like way worse than running with scissors.

Disclaimer: Not a fan, never was. I think his 39-0 record is among the most padded in boxing. He didn’t fight any of the great figures of his era during their prime, unlike, for instance, De La Hoya who fought EVERYONE in their prime (though his record in those fights is fairly poor). The upcoming Marquez bout is the closest thing to a legally fixed fight I’ve ever seen. A lightweight like Marquez giving up nine pounds to a welterweight like Mayweather is akin to a middleweight fighting a heavyweight. I won’t be surprised if Mayweather wins, or even if he prevails in the inevitable fight with Manny Pacquio (another substantially smaller fighter). But he’s a 10th grader picking fights at the local middle school.

So there’s my cast of crazies.

I think that two years for klutzy gun carrying Burress is excessively severe if gambler and animal-torturer Vick gets 23 months, and girlfriend-beating Brown doesn’t do any time at all.

Does anyone disagree that Brown’s beating of his girlfriend is a far more serious offense than Burress carrying a concealed gun into a club and accidentally shooting himself? There was real damage inflicted on a real person in the Brown case, whereas Burress didn’t damage anyone except himself. People make a lot out of the potential harm in Burress’s carrying a gun, but it would seem that there is greater potential harm in strangling your girlfriend until she passes out.

Also, I think Vick’s offense is far more serious than Burress’s. Even if you don’t care about the animals, the potential harm suggested by Vick’s actions seems greater than Burress’s. There was no wrongful intention (or mens rea for those afflicted with law school) with Burress, whereas there pretty clearly was for Vick (and even more so for Brown, by the way…) I suppose Burress’s guilty intention was knowingly bringing a gun into a club, but for me it isn’t as bad as intending to injure and subjugate your girlfriend or intending to torture and kill animals.

At the end of the day, I’d rather hang out with Burress at a club than either have a date with Brown or a sleepover at Michael Vick’s house during a Bad Newz Kennel night. I’d probably buy him a holster, but that’s just people helping people.

Mayweather probably doesn’t deserve to be listed in this group because he hasn’t even been accused of doing anything wrong. But it is interesting to look at him opposite Burress, because (assuming Floyd wasn’t at all involved in the shooting) they caused the same amount of harm to others. Mayweather may have actually had a gun in his car at the time a shooting took place in the same parking lot. Burress wore a gun into a club. Neither one injured anyone else.

Imagine that Floyd left one of his handguns in his bowling bag (because his body guards called in sick and he was worried about being hassled) and it went off in the rink as he went to retrieve the ball, injuring no one. Would two years in prison be the appropriate remedy? Imagine that Michael Vick had a handgun at the large semi-public dogfights he hosted (I don’t know for certain either way, but let’s be serious. You could probably take over Canada with the guns broutght to Bad Newz Kennel events). Would that have deserved two years when he only got 23 months for the dog fighting itself?

One might think that racism was at work in Burress’ sentence because we have a fear of successful black people. This strikes me as odd, since I think Chris Brown’s and Michael Vick’s sentences were lighter than they could have been (especially Brown, who isn’t even doing time). Moreover, Mayweather wasn’t even charged, when there seems to be enough circumstantial evidence to allow a racist system to pursue him. If racism is at work in the Burress case, it’s notably lacking in the case of these other black celebrities. It seems implausible to me that we’re exercising ugly racial sentiments so selectively.

I think the same comparison also belies the suggestion that we’re making-an-example out of Burress because he’s a high profile figure who did something wrong. I suppose it’s possible, but is it really more important to send a message about carrying guns that didn’t injure anyone else than it is to send a message about domestic violence, or severe animal torture? If we are sending a message, I’d argue we chose a strange case.

And one last thing, just while we’re here. If your view is that Burress’s crime was carrying a gun into a crowded place because guns are profoundly dangerous and need to be strictly controlled (a la Great Britain), that’s fine. But then can you please, please, please explain to me why some random guy was allowed to carry a assault rifle to a speech given by President Obama in Arizona? (And by the way, the rifle appears to be CAR-15, which is a more modern, slightly de-tuned version of the famous M-16. It ain’t a gentleman’s hunting rifle. It’s what our soldiers carry in Iraq.) Or why a guy is allowed to show up at an Obama town hall meeting with a gun strapped to his thigh in New Hampshire? The trivial answer is that these states and others don’t require a permit to openly carry a gun, unlike New York. That may be a reason, but it isn’t a justification.

Can it really be true that if Plaxico carried the same gun to a club in Phoenix, but tucked his shirt behind it so it was visible and yet everything else was the same, then he’d get two years of his life back and still be a millionaire playing in the NFL? Right. Got it.

So, what’s up with the Burress sentencing? Perhaps I have it wrong, or I’m missing something. What do you think?

Article by Trent Teti of Blueprint LSAT Preparation.

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