Friday, June 19, 2009

Stallworth's plea deal places pressure on Goodell, NFL

By most accounts Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth is a good guy.

Prosecutors whose business it is to make sure that justice has been served in the eyes of their constituents have repeatedly pointed out Stallworth’s, “excellent pre-incident history of community service, abundant references that attest to his good character, his lack of any traffic violations or criminal convictions, his full and complete post-incident cooperation with law enforcement, and his willingness to accept complete responsibility for his actions.”

Responsibility for his actions…we’ll come back to that.

First, let’s rewind to March 14, 2009 at 7:15am in Miami…

After a long evening of partying at South Beach’s swanky Fountainebleau hotel, perhaps in part to celebrate his then recently awarded $4.5 million roster bonus, Stallworth gets into his black Bentley GT coupe and heads home. While driving across the MacArthur Causeway 10 miles per hour in excess of the posted 40 mph limit, a construction crane operator fresh off his shift darts across the road to catch a bus. Stallworth allegedly tried to warn the construction worker by flashing his lights but to no avail.

Stallworth fought the ill-effects of a 0.126 blood alcohol level and stayed at the scene and called 911. His efforts were too little, too late as 59 year old Mario Reyes was pronounced dead at the scene.

In a flash, no less than two lives were changed forever – one was lost and the other permanently scarred by the guilt of senselessly albeit accidentally taking the life of another.

Stallworth had no priors of such behavior.

In that regard, he’s not much different than most of us. I would even venture to say that many of us have used questionable judgment while sitting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle after a night on the town. Could a tragedy like this have happened to you?

Reyes death notwithstanding, bad things do happen to good people.

Some of us could be in Stallworth’s unenviable shoes. Good people will have many restless nights knowing that they took the life of a 15 year old girl’s father.

Some are outraged that Stallworth’s punishment that includes amongst other inconveniences, 30 days behind bars. Thirty days for taking a human life!

Many will point to Michael Vick’s time served of 23 months and incorrectly draw comparisons between his sentence and Stallworth’s plea. They will ignorantly conclude that Stallworth gets 30 days for a human life while Vick gets nearly two years for a dog’s.

The two are miles apart. Vick’s was an often repeated violation with intent while Stallworth’s was a tragic accident.

I do find it interesting though that Stallworth had the presence of mind to flash his lights in an effort to warn Reyes but didn’t have time to brake or redirect his Bentley. I suppose that doesn’t matter much now.

But what does matter is the message sent via this plea. Stallworth is now a couple of days into his 30 day sentence. When he is released he’ll have to deal with the revocation of his driver’s license, 2 years house arrest, 8 years of probation, random drug testing, fines and 1,000 hours of community service.

In addition to these things reports suggest that he had to pay the Reyes family somewhere between $2 and $5 million.

Now typically crimes like vehicular manslaughter carry sentences 10-15 years if convicted. A plea suggests an admission of guilt. Isn’t a verdict of guilty as condemning as admitting the crime? And if so, how did they get to 30 days from 10-15 years?

Isn’t Reyes’ life worth more?

The Reyes family said that they simply wanted closure and that’s why they conceded to the plea. Re-opening old wounds would have been too painful they claimed in so many words.

I wonder how they would have felt if the man that killed Mario Reyes was a penniless, unemployed auto worker with no priors and down on his luck. Would they have pushed for a harsher sentence absent the $2-5 million?

Of course they would have and therefore Reyes death had a value and in the end Mario Reyes would probably have wanted the money for his family if he could no longer be with them. But does the exchange of money make it right? Was justice really served?
Is it ok for the wealthy to avoid severe criminal punishment just because they have the means to satisfy a civil case? Doesn’t that send the wrong message? How will such pleas help deter the next wealthy athlete or entertainer from driving while impaired?

Answer…It won’t!

The inability of the court system to render proper punishment now places pressure on Roger Goodell. Should he allow Stallworth to return to the field in September ‘o9 and face the wrath of Mothers Against Drunk Driving? If Goodell’s ruling is deemed too lenient, how will the MADD activists respond? Might they then pressure NFL sponsors?

Ah, back to the issue of money.

Clearly this isn’t easy for anyone involved – not the remorseful Stallworth, the Reyes family, the NFL or MADD. But someone has to be held accountable -- someone is responsible and someone has to pay an equitable price. So far that hasn't happened and we can all thank the Miami Dade prosecutors for that!

These officers of the court allowed the money flowing from Stallworth’s hands to the Reyes family blind their sense of justice. Their job is to help preserve and be a champion of justice and set a precedent for all of us, not just the Reyes family. Their short-sightedness enables more behavior like this at the expense of Miami’s, Florida’s and this country’s citizens.

And now Goodell has the responsibility, the thankless task to clean up their mess.

NOTE: Since this column/blog was posted yesterday around 4PM, Roger Goodell has decided to suspend Donte Stallworth indefinitely without pay. He issued the following statement:

"The conduct reflected in your guilty plea resulted in the tragic loss of life and was inexcusable," Goodell wrote. "While the criminal justice system has determined the legal consequences of this incident, it is my responsibility as NFL commissioner to determine the appropriate league discipline for your actions, which have caused irreparable harm to the victim and his family, your club, your fellow players and the NFL."

The last indefinite suspension handed down by Goodell was to Adam “Pacman” Jones and that sideline Jones for 6 games.