Buying Justice: Myth Or Reality?

Who stands a better chance at walking out of a courtroom free and clear of all criminal charges? Is it the rich businessman and his team of high-priced attorneys? Or, is it the average Joe, a hardworking ditch-digger who barely gets by earning minimum wage and is represented by an overworked, underpaid court-appointed attorney who’s fresh out of law school?

I think it’s safe to say the answer to that question is, well…it goes without saying.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the latest high-profile case where a young man of more than substantial means, while driving drunk, crashed and killed four people. His family hired a couple of “big name” attorneys, and when the dust settled the defendant skated out of the courtroom with a sentence of probation. His defense had been that he was raised in the midst of extreme wealth and riches and had never been disciplined for doing wrong. As a result of living in those “horrible” conditions he suffered from affluenza, meaning that he couldn’t/didn’t know any better. Apparently, affluenza renders rich people totally and utterly stupid beyond all definitions of the word.

At least, though, the young man’s attorneys managed to come up with a defense that has a name attached to it. But what about the wealthy one-percenters who never seem to serve any real time for their crimes? How do they manage to avoid the orange jump suits and sharing a 6×9 concrete and steel room with roaches and rats? Has it always been this way, where the well-connected enjoy a different standard of justice than do folks of meager means?

Let’s begin our exploration on a small scale—the wannabe big fish in a tiny pond. You know, the upper crust of small town U.S.A.

There was a deputy who’d decided to come in off patrol to catch up on a bit of paperwork. He parked in front of the jail and, after that unseen person buzzed him through the gates, he headed upstairs to a private room where several deputies shared a bank of desks and a few typewriters.

As he made his way up the steps he heard someone clacking away at one of the old Royals. He thought it was odd to hear someone hard at work in the office because he hadn’t seen any other patrol cars parked outside. When he turned the doorknob and pushed the door open, he was quite surprised to see a young man, a non-employee civilian, sitting behind one of the army-green metal desks. The stranger looked up from his typing and, without so much as a “kiss my tail feathers,” he went back to pecking the keys.

The deputy placed his folders and other do-dads on one of the other desks, and said, “Excuse me.”

The interloper stopped typing and looked up. He was obviously irritated that the lowly deputy had the gall to bother him.

The deputy continued. “Did someone give you permission to be in here?” The deputy was concerned because their lockers, which contained evidence, firearms, chemical sprays, and other police goodies, were also in the room.

The little snob said, “Yeah…they did.” He went back to work.

“Who?” the deputy asked.

“Who, what?” was the kid’s snotty reply to him, without bothering to stop punching the keys and dinging the bell.

The officer had heard and seen enough, so he placed his hand over the typebars and said, “Who gave you permission to be in this room using our typewriters?”

“My daddy told the sheriff to let me do my homework in here, and he TOLD the sheriff I was not to be interrupted.”

“And your daddy is…?”

“Judge So and So. You may have heard of him.”

Well, after checking his story, it turned out that Mr. Typewriter was indeed the judge’s son, and the little darlin’ had been convicted of manslaughter in another jurisdiction (driving drunk and crashed into a car, killing the elderly couple inside).

His father, the judge, pulled some strings and arranged it so that his baby boy could serve his sentence in this particular jail. The judge had also worked a deal with the sheriff to allow the kid to remain outside of the cell blocks until lights out. He was also to be allowed to hang out in the employee break room, watch TV, enjoy meals delivered to him from the outside, wear street clothes, and to use the desks and typewriters normally reserved for deputies, to complete his papers and other projects for the college he attended (assignments and notes were also delivered to him). Deputies were not to disturb the judge’s son while he was using their typewriters and their desks.

In another instance, a wealthy businessman was arrested for his 4th DUI, and he was sentenced to a whopping 30 days in the county jail. This man was one of the county sheriff’s golfing and drinking buddies. You can imagine how this went. During the duration of his incarceration, the man was allowed to wear his street clothes. He was also allowed to wear his gold bracelet, watch, and a gold chain around his neck that was nearly large enough to use as an anchor chain on a battleship. It didn’t stop there.

Jailers were instructed that this man’s cell door was to remain unlocked and open at all times. Jail cooks had to prepare made-to-order meals for him (he sent his orders to the kitchen via the on-duty jailers). He received a daily newspaper. He used the phone anytime day or night. He received visitors anytime day or night. He was allowed to run his business from the jail. He roamed the halls and corridors normally patrolled by jail staff. And, he was even allowed to use the conference room for business meetings!

A first time offender was arrested by an FBI agent for possessing less than $100 worth of crack cocaine. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of dollars were poured into the investigation—search warrants, canines, dozens of officers, agents, state police, prosecution team, etc. All for less than $100 worth of crack cocaine. That’s it. That’s all they found and that was the defendant’s only charge.

The FBI and federal prosecutors threatened to lock up the man’s family (as accomplices – they weren’t). Officials threatened the man with a sentence of 10 years or more. And they threatened to seize his home and all of his possessions, leaving his family with absolutely nothing.

However, the officials offered a five year sentence if the man pleaded guilty.

The defendant hired a very prominent attorney to represent him…for a base fee of $25,000. Shortly after, the attorney came to the man (who was in jail under NO BOND) and said the plea deal he’d negotiated was for just over three years in federal prison. The attorney, by the way, placed a lien on his client’s home for the $25,000, and he’d done so the moment he was retained. The defendant had no access to any funds other than the equity in his home.

The attorney, in the same conversation, said he could probably have the sentence reduced to probation or home confinement if the defendant could somehow find another $25,000.

Remember, this was between the attorney and his client. We have no way of knowing if it went any further, or, if anyone else had any knowledge of the “negotiation fee”.

So, what are your thoughts? Is there a special justice system for the wealthy/”one-percenters”? Are harsher sentences handed down to the average Joe’s and Jane’s in this country? How about the poor? Do they stand a chance against the courts and powerful prosecutors? Do some prosecutors routinely step on the “little people,” chalking up big conviction numbers to further their personal career goals—like an appointment as the head of the CIA, FBI, etc.?

Can money truly buy freedom?


14 thoughts on “Buying Justice: Myth Or Reality?

  • Steven Torres

    Money buys freedom wherever freedom happens to be for sale. I used to work in the neighborhood where the Soviet embassy staff lived with their families – million dollar homes. The teenagers all had diplomatic immunity and would smash car windows or snip out car batteries and place them on the hood of the car. Then they’d come around at 5pm to see your reaction and laugh in your face. If you called the cops, the cops told you to drop it. The wealthy have almost that level of immunity – ask Justin Beiber…

  • Jason Leisemann

    The stories up there are pretty bad… but I don’t know that they aren’t unusual. The system doesn’t just have two-tiers either; you’ve got the tier of people who are lucky not to go bankrupt in exchange for a dice roll with the jury, and then you’ve got the tier who buy themselves “rehab” for slaughtering four or five people.

    I’d *really* like to see the list of donors to the judge’s previous election campaigns in the ‘affluenza’ case, honestly. I strongly suspect the expensive lawyers and experts were for show, the outcome was already figured out.

    Of course, above it all, you’ve got the tier reserved for rich folks involved in political/financial crime. That’s the tier where even if you are convicted, you go to a country club jail and then make a fortune selling the story of how horrible it was that you were persecuted by the police for scamming people out of tens of millions of dollars. Most of the time, you just take a tax deductible write-off, have your law firm hire the prosecutor, and go back to making more money than most people will see in their lifetimes.

  • Sheila Lowe

    I do a fair amount of expert witness work for various public offenders when handwriting is involved. I’m currently working on a couple of murder cases and am firmly of the opinion that it’s true that you get all the justice you can afford. It’s not the fault of the public defenders, who work their butts off with a ridiculous number of cases.

    Recently, I was in the courthouse, waiting in the hallway to be called to testify, when an attorney I’d worked with awhile back happened by. He stopped and gave me a 45 minute lecture about the corruption in this particular court system (in a major county), with very specific details and names. I later verified with another attorney a couple of items. For example, judges are not allowed to take donations from attorneys, but they can throw lavish birthday parties and invite all the attorneys in town with the expectation that they will not attend. Instead, they will send a birthday card with a nice “gift” enclosed Magically, their cases receive special attention.

    One high profile judge who was working to expose this and other bad practices has been relegated to an empty courtroom, where he plays solitaire daily because no cases are assigned to him.

    Lesson: Don’t get into trouble unless you’ve got the bucks to get out of it.

  • Ashley McConnell

    I think in the case of the guy who was arrested for the crack cocaine, it’s not the prosecutor who’s at fault–it’s the FBI agent who abused his power and threw the entire justice system into the mud and stomped on it. The fact that prosecutors helped, though, makes it even worse. Doing something like that ought to be a federal crime, too.

  • Lee Lofland

    All good comments, and I appreciate hearing the different views and observations.

    Ashley, I believe it the federal prosecutor who was calling the shots in the crack cocaine case. He/she thought the person was a big fish, but wasn’t. And when it was discovered the fish was a minnow who couldn’t provide names of larger fish, the prosecutor tried to bury the offender in the system to save face.

    Of course, the money-hungry defense attorney seemed to be bad news too.

  • Kris

    The judge who gave that kid probation must have contracted ‘affluenza’, too; apparently one of the symptoms is that it turns a person’s brain to mush. Accepting ‘affluenza’ as a defense has to be the lamest excuse for killing four people I’ve ever heard. Sadly, it’s not the first time I’ve known of someone who had more money than God who spread the wealth around and got off with a slap on the hand. Your average working joe would have been in jail faster than you can say ‘Oh-Jay’…

  • SZ

    I just heard about this kid this morning. Where is the massive protest ? We should be embarrassed to allow this kid to skate just becUse he has money.

  • Andrea

    I could not tolerate working in the environment described here. Even in factories, I’m always on the verge of getting fired for pointing out the favoritism and nepotism, and you’re talking about the *judicial* system. My stomach lining would be gone the first week. I honestly don’t know how a conscientious person tolerates it.

  • Lee Lofland

    Andrea, please understand that these incidents are not the norm.

  • Maggie Tousaint

    Some things are truly messed up and unfair. But that seems to be universal. We can strive for change and justice all we like, but any place there’s the slightest wiggle room, and sometimes when there’s none at all, people skate unfairly.

    I think, for the most part, Americans hear of incidents like this and brush them off as “not my problem” until it is their problem. But then they’re living the inequity and the world seems upside down.

  • Chris Roerden

    Reminds me of the parents protesting outside the abortion clinics who’ve gotten private abortions for their own daughters, justified on the basis of “but my daughter’s problem was a special circumstance. We are still firmly against anyone else having one.”

    Re the cases you cite, Lee, where do I sign the petition, join the protest, or vote for the whatever that is currently involved in opposing this travesty of justice? (‘ll be there, in between protesting on Moral Mondays in NC for voting rights.)

  • Bud Crawford

    Here’s a link to somebody thinking about these things, with a few suggestions:

    The basic idea is limiting how much can be spent for legal help, as well as creating a more robust public defender corps. No way to achieve a truly level field, but it doesn’t have to be so severely tilted.

  • Julie Robinson

    A little transparency could go a long way with this strain of the ‘flu’.

  • Mary Welk

    I’m convinced that money, power, and connections play a huge part in determining who is charged with a crime, what kind of defense they receive, what kind of sentence is given if they’re convicted, and how that sentence is carried out. I was born and raised in Chicago where political corruption goes hand in hand with corruption of the legal system. Good case in point: Carly Rousso lives in Highland Park, a wealthy north shore suburb of Chicago. Her father owns a tech company; her mother is executive director of the Art Center of Highland Park. The family has a good deal of money and lots of connections in the area. On Monday, Sept. 3, 2012, 18-yr-old Carly got high huffing cleaning fluid before taking her father’s car out for a drive. Due to her impaired state, she jumped the curb of a downtown Highland Park street and plowed into a woman and her three children walking on the sidewalk. Carly ran over 5-yr-old Jaclyn Santos-Sacramento, then backed up her car and ran over the child a second time. Jaclyn died at the hospital. Jaclyn’s mother was hospitalized for several days, but her brothers escaped relatively unharmed. Police arrived at the scene, but despite one officer’s claim that she appeared impaired, Carly was released from the scene without being charged with anything. No charges were filed until 2 days later, Wednesday, Sept 5, when Carly (who’d been abusing drugs and alcohol for at least two years) was charged with a misdemeanor DUI. Now why was that? Could it have something to do with Carly’s prominent parents and their connections in Highland Park? Could it have something to do with Jaclyn’s Hispanic sounding last name? You’re right on both counts. It took a huge outcry from the Chicago Hispanic community to get any kind of justice for the Santos-Sacramento family. And even then it wasn’t until a month later, on Oct. 3, 2012, that a grand jury indicted Carly on 2 counts of reckless homicide and 4 counts of aggravated driving under the influence. Carly’s trial is set for March 14, 2014. We’ll see if her parents’ money and influence can force a “not guilty” decision from the judge.

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