In Defense of Plaxico: Why Burress Should be a Free Man

On Tuesday morning, Plaxico Burress was sentenced to two years in prison. Following the brief hearing, the one-time New York Giants Super Bowl hero was immediately taken into custody so he could be transported to Rikers Island jail in New York City. As this scene unfolded at the courthouse on Tuesday, I could not help but ask why was this man going to prison?

Burress violated New York’s strict gun laws in an incident last November. Burress was in the Latin Quarter Nightclub in Manhattan when a handgun tucked in his sweatpants slipped down his leg and accidently fired, shooting him in the thigh. The gun had not been registered in New York State. This set off a media firestorm sending everyone from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to the New York Giants to local politicians scurrying to distance themselves from the once idolized wide receiver.

It is clear from that November night that Burress is as dumb as they come. Everything he did that night screamed “moron!” Why would a millionaire celebrity risk carrying a loaded weapon in a public place? You would have to be an idiot to do that. However, prison is for criminals, not for stupid people.

So why do we send people to prison? Usually, it is to punish someone for an act that harmed someone or for a crime that has a victim. Now, I know what you are probably saying: Burress could have shot someone by bringing a loaded weapon into a club. While very unlikely, that is true. However, I am capable of committing a serious crime tomorrow but just because I could does not mean I should go to prison for it.

The only person injured in this incident was Burress. It was victimless crime and for that crime he is spending two years of his life in prison. Think about that for a moment. Are we really safer with Plaxico Burress behind bars?

The most frightening part of this case is the influence of politics on the sentencing. Previous gun cases demonstrate that the laws of New York State are rarely applied evenly. Burress was charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. This requires a minimum of 3? years in jail, yet New York prosecutors routinely drop the charges to third-degree possession, which does not carry a minimum prison sentence. In fact, most third-degree possession cases do not end with jail time at all, especially for first offenders like Burress.

However, the nature of the charge is entirely at the discretion of the prosecutor, in this case, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Mayor Michael Bloomberg complimented the DA on his prosecution saying “We have some of the toughest gun laws in the country and the DAs have some flexibility, and in this case Morgenthau used some of that flexibility.” The prosecutor alone decides who is worthy of a reduced charge. Evidently, Burress was not worthy.

It is difficult to blame Morgenthau for the tough sentence for Burress when you have your boss, the Mayor of New York, breathing down your neck. As columnist Mike Freeman called him, “Mayor Bloombully” came out strong, saying “It would be an outrage if we didn’t prosecute to the fullest extent of the law particularly people who live in the public domain.” Why would it be an outrage to treat Burress the same way other similar defendants are treated? Isn’t that the way justice should work?

Unfortunately, politics poisoned this case from the start. Mayor Bloomberg made it clear before charges were even brought that he wanted this prominent Giants football player to be an example. Unfortunately, a stupid guy is being treated the same way one would treat a dangerous criminal. Unfortunately, a man has to spend two years of his life behind bars for a victimless crime.