Jewish World Review May 6, 2004 / 15 Iyar 5764
Why have we been seeing some questionable outcomes when the cover-up becomes the crime?
Three recent high profile cases where the defendant was convicted of hindering an investigation, but for one reason or another not charged or convicted of the underlying crime. It seems counterintuitive that Martha Stewart, banker Frank Quattrone and former NBA star Jayson Williams would all be convicted of covering up, well, non-crimes.
Quattrone convicted of obstruction of justice and witness tampering based on e-mails he sent out after a bank fraud investigation was launched. He encouraged employees to follow the company policy of destroying documents, a policy that was supposed to be suspended because of the investigation, but he was never charged with a bank fraud, just for the e-mail.
Martha Stewart, of course, charged for lying to investigators about insider trading that she was never charged with either. And the jury in the manslaughter trial of NBA star Jayson Williams finding him not guilty of aggravated manslaughter and assault. While they couldn't reach a verdict on reckless manslaughter, they found him guilty of tampering with witnesses and evidence, but again in connection with what crime?
Yet the irony is that Quattrone arguably did the least to cover up his non-crime. Just writing an e-mail as compared to Stewart who repeated her lie to federal investigators, but he will likely face the most time behind bars, about 18 months. And Williams, who by far did the most, allegedly wiping off the gun and ordering that his clothes be thrown away, could get the least time, probation, if prosecutors choose not to retry him on the reckless manslaughter charge.
These are back door convictions, not improper, but legal copouts.
It's often easier to prove a lie or a cover-up than the actual crime. Prosecutors shouldn't make a habit out of pursuing these cases if they don't believe the person will be convicted of the actual crime. The Williams' case doesn't apply there.
So while you can't run an effective legal system with people lying or even covering up an effort to avoid prosecution, we also need to make sure that the limited resources available to prosecutors are primarily focused on real criminals.
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JWR contributor Dan Abrams anchors The Abrams Report, Monday through Friday from 9-10 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV. He also covers legal stories for NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, Today and Dateline NBC. To visit his website, click here. Comment by clicking here.
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