Criminal Justice

The Varsity Blues Trial Is a Reminder of Our Corrupt Criminal Justice System

Plead guilty and get "punishments ranging from probation to nine months in prison." Insist on a trial and face decades in prison.

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A federal jury in Boston recently convicted Gamal Abdelaziz and John Wilson in connection with conspiring to get their children into the University of Southern California. The story is more newsworthy for what it says about the corruption of our criminal justice system than for what it says about corruption in the college admissions process.

The striking element is that people are being punished for exercising the rights to "a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury" and "to be confronted with the witnesses against him" that are guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

The Associated Press lays out the facts: "Thirty-three parents have pleaded guilty, including TV actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and Loughlin's fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli. The parents have so far received punishments ranging from probation to nine months in prison."

Abdelaziz and Wilson were the first parents to go to trial. What sort of punishment do they face? A press release from the Department of Justice explains:

"The charge of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services mail and wire fraud provides for a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater. The charge of conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater. The charge of wire fraud and honest services wire fraud provides for a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater. The charge of federal programs bribery provides for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater. The charge of filing a false tax return provides for a sentence of up to three years in prison, one year of supervised release and a fine of $100,000."

Even longtime federal judges are skeptical of the tendency of prosecutors to pile "conspiracy" charges on top of underlying charges. That allows prosecutors, essentially, to charge defendants twice for the same crime—once for the "conspiracy" of planning the crime, once for committing it. In a pretrial hearing on an unrelated case earlier this year, a longtime federal judge in Brooklyn, Edward Korman, described it as "a common form of charging to unnecessarily complicate cases."

The conspiracy charges are part of the vast imbalance between those who plead guilty and those who exercise their Sixth Amendment right to a trial. Plead guilty and get "punishments ranging from probation to nine months in prison." Insist on a trial and face decades in prison.

The New York Times reports, "They face up to 20 years in prison on the most serious charges. But experts said that under the sentencing guidelines they would get far less, perhaps less than three years for Mr. Abdelaziz and less than five years for Mr. Wilson." Even three or five years, though, is a lot more than "probation to nine months in prison." The difference is what criminal justice reform advocates call the "trial penalty"—additional prison time that people face merely for exercising a right to which they have a constitutional guarantee under the Sixth Amendment.

Plea bargains save the government time, money, and the trouble of actually proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt. The ratio seen in the college admissions cases so far—33 guilty pleas to two convictions after a trial—demonstrates how tilted the system is. In practice, in modern American criminal justice, a trial is unusual rather than routine, despite the constitutional guarantee.

A 2018 report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that fewer than 3 percent of federal criminal cases result in a trial. "There is ample evidence that federal criminal defendants are being coerced to plead guilty because the penalty for exercising their constitutional rights is simply too high to risk. This 'trial penalty' results from the discrepancy between the sentence the prosecutor is willing to offer in exchange for a guilty plea and the sentence that would be imposed after a trial," the report said. A foreword by a former federal judge, John Gleeson, said, "Putting the government to its proof is a constitutional right, enshrined in the Sixth Amendment; no one should be required to gamble with years and often decades of their liberty to exercise it."

Advocacy groups have mobilized in recent years to defend First Amendment and Second Amendment rights against legislative assault. The Sixth Amendment needs champions, too, before the right to a trial is further eroded. Our constitutional liberties might be even more important than who gets into USC.

NEXT: Joe Biden Wants To Spend Trillions on Infrastructure. His Environmental Reforms Ensure He'll Have To.

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  1. How dumb do your kids have to be for them to aspire to the University of Southern California?

    1. With famous parents.

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    2. Could be worse, they could have had to bribe their way into Arizona State.

      1. “Lisa, don’t resign, the school needs you. You made a lot of improvements, and it wasn’t exactly San Diego State before you were elected”
        – Bart Simpson

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      2. “Looks like Heaven’s easier to get into than Arizona State.”

        ~~Ned Flanders

        1. Lousy flood pants!

          My feet are soaked, but my cuffs are bone dry!

          Everything’s coming up Milhouse!

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            1. Touché Diane, touché

    3. At least it’s in a nice neighborhood…

      1. Best school in Watts

        1. Also, it’d be called “Watts Adjacent” in the vernacular of L.A. real estate.

    4. It’s a much more highly rated school academically than it was when I was there in the 90s. They actually got sued by someone in the wake of all this who was claiming damages from having had to “settle” for going to Stanford because they figured one of Aunt Becky’s daughters maybe got their spot at SC.

  2. conspiracy to send your child to University Second Choice isn’t a crime it’s just ridiculous. no true jury would ever …

  3. also, Cousin Becky forever.

  4. The conspiracy charges are part of the vast imbalance between those who plead guilty and those who exercise their Sixth Amendment right to a trial. Plead guilty and get “punishments ranging from probation to nine months in prison.” Insist on a trial and face decades in prison.

    Sounds like blackmail.

    1. Actually, it sounds like the prosecution team is conspiring to deny constitutional rights – –

      1. Oh but surely that’s just paranoid—

  5. Of course, the US Constitution only guarantees the right to a trial, not a fair trial.
    As we are about to find out when the vaccine show trials begin.

  6. Wonder of we have a similar set of cases happening in D.C. at the moment..

    1. The hammer of justice is falling. Misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Take that terrorists!

      1. They admitted to stealing a beer. Why are you not outraged!

    2. Shut up that’s different.

  7. You know these people made some kind of deal with the devil many decades ago.

    “I can make you very rich, but in return, you’ll be very, very dumb. Think Silicon Valley dumb.”

    1. Silicon Valley is in the smarter half of the state though.

  8. Wait, this is asking me to believe that doing end runs around the Constitution is endemic at all levels of our government? Well I NEVER!

    1. Take this to the bank – by the time liberal democracy is done with us, we’ll be sorry we didn’t surrender to Hitler when we had the chance.

      1. HITLER: But I never asked for…

        CHORUS: Take us!

        HITLER: But there isn’t room in the…

        CHORUS: That’s OK, we’ll form a line outside.

        HITLER: But we don’t have enough…

        CHORUS: We’ll bring our own.

        HITLER: I’ll make the Jews wait. I never liked them anyway.

        CHORUS: You know who else made the Jews wait?

        HITLER: Yahweh?

  9. The same thing is being applied to Jan 6th protesters. Ones that are pleading guilty are basically sentenced to time served

    1. And others pleading to 15 months and being forced to repeat fealty statements despite not committing any vandalism or harm.

  10. Speaking of balance…. Does anyone know what happened to those how accepted the bribes?

    1. One of them turned on the bribers and skated

    2. They could probably build a new building with the bribe money the get.

      I mean, hypothetically. The hypothetical building for hypothetical bribes.

      Also, to any university official reading this, I wasn’t referring to *you.*

      1. …and if you’re thinking of buying naming rights on a new building, bear in mind that after you’re safely dead they’ll denounce you as a racist and rename the building after Assata Shakur.

    3. Some of the coaches got fired.

  11. That’s the system. Take the plea or roll the dice on years on prison. Sure you could be totally innocent, but the cops are gonna lie, the prosecutor’s gonna lie, and the jury’s gonna believe whatever the assholes with “the public trust” say. Guilty until proven guilty.

    1. Shoulda just shot them all in the face.

      1. They may get a second chance!

  12. Imagine a system where they paid defendants with money to get them to plead guilty?

    “You’ll be f____d, but your family will get taken care of. Or you could go to trial, go to prison anyway, and your family gets nothing.”

    Wouldn’t that be some sort of crime?

    Though it would have advantages compared to bribing defendants using shorter sentences. After all: paying a guilty guy money to accept his punishment without the bother of a trial would probably make the community safer than shaving years off his sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.

    You see, while some of you simply stew in useless indignation, I’m making *practical* suggestions for criminal-justice reform!

    1. Would there be anything illegal about that? I’m asking seriously, because it looks funny, but it may be legal.

  13. Here’s a famous 1978 article by John H. Langbein – and before you dismiss him as some Rothbardian crank, he was a law professor at Chicago *and* Yale – comparing the plea-bargaining system to torture, in the sense that both systems provided escape valves from rules which, strictly applied, would highly favor the defendant:

    https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=13928&context=journal_articles

    Of course, he went on to advocate for replacing the American trial system with the Continental inquisitorial system (minus the torture part). Ah, well, the American system just can’t win, it seems.

    1. I’ve always thought an adversarial system bizarre as applied to crime. The trouble is, how do you find an inquisitor who’s interested enough to care to do a good job, yet impartial?

  14. The problem is with the potential sentences for the alleged crimes, plus stockpiling crimes in one indictment. Having an option to plea is better than not having one.

  15. 20 years in prison seems light compared to the death penalty for trespassing.

  16. Fuckin’ honest services mail/wire fraud again! Somebody’s got to take that law down.

  17. Reading these comments is startling, as everyone seems to have missed the point. I direct you to the book ‘The Tyranny of Good Intentions’ . It should scare the crap out of you, if you not too focused on ‘celebrity’.

  18. I had a Sunday School classmate years ago who was a criminal defense attorney. By her estimate, 95% of her clients would accept a plea bargain because they were guilty. What troubled her was the other 5%. Of those, the majority were guilty of serious crimes or had two previous felony convictions. They were going away for a long time if not effectively the rest of their lives. They would not accept a plea bargain because the only hope they had was a technical issue during the trial would be their “get-out-of-jail-free” card. The remaining 1-ish% were actually innocent. They were falsely accused because the ex-spouse was vindictive or they happened to somewhat match the description of the actual suspect. Those were the worst trouble for her because proving innocence is damn near impossible.

    This defendants are not sympathetic. I have been falsely accused. I could understand if they were falsely accused of a crime. I honestly don’t understand why it is the government’s issue when someone wants to bribe their way into a private college or university. If they were bribing their way into a public school, that is a different matter. If I recall correctly, that was only one student and the rest were targeting private schools. But what most of the accused did in these cases is insane. You had someone take the test for your child. Technically, wrong but hardly a crime. You donated $500k to the school and were willing to pay the insane fees for your child to attend for four years. How the hell is that a crime?

    What are you in for? Murder. What are you in for? Robbing a bank. What are you in for? I tried to get my child into a prestigious college.

    1. Such private bribery is the stuff of most “honest services fraud”. It’s a federal statute that’s only a few decades old. A libertarian (and pagan) acquaintance went to prison for it. It resulted from an operation in which the Republican Party had an undercover fed bribe them for permission to run for their nomination. The other charge concerned bestowal of a small government goodie of which my friend had discretion over who’d be the recipient, and wasn’t entirely transparent about how the selection was made. So, “deprivation of honest services” using the communications of interstate commerce (mail or wire), and there’s no further delineation of what “honest services” might mean. And the services don’t need to have anything to do with government, as in the college admissions case.

      Not only that, but to a large degree, everybody does it. Parents frequently make donations in the hope of favorable treatment. And that’s just in college admissions. A favor for a favor goes on in all walks of life, and then it’s just a matter of how big a favor.

      1. You know things are fucked when a friend is convicted of a felony for doing things that, when you think about it, you would’ve done the same thing. Would I do the same thing as everyone who’s convicted of honest services fraud? Of course not. I don’t think I’d take bribes if I were on a college admissions committee. But sometimes, by my accounting, there’s no victim being deprived of what s/he had coming, so why not take advantage? If that undercover guy hadn’t bribed those Republicans, there’d’ve been no significant campaign by any Republican for mayor of NYC (which is probably the way the FBI wanted it). My friend had a goodie to bestow to somebody, so why not make it somebody who was friendly to his friends?

        1. Bribery is standard practice is shithole countries around the world.

  19. Prison sentences for crowding in front of the Gov-Bread line?
    And we have a Gov-Bread line Because??

  20. The biggest stupidity of the whole thing (at least in the case of USC) is that these parents could have donated 80% of what they gave the guy paying the bribes and got their kids into the school without anyone considering it suspicious, and the tax deduction would have been enough to cover the tuition.

    Lori Laughlin’s husband went to USC and really should have known that the scam he got busted for was far too complicated compared to what it needed to be.

  21. Another example of a constitutional right violated.

    The founders enumerated our rights to prevent the US from becoming the shithole country you came from.

  22. The author would have us believe this crap only happens in the federal courts.

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