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Jesse Jackson Jr. likely to use illness in plea to cut sentence

U.S. Rep. Jesse JacksJr. is likely use his bipolar disorder argue for more-lenient sentence. | Getty Images

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is likely to use his bipolar disorder to argue for a more-lenient sentence. | Getty Images

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Updated: June 6, 2013 6:55AM



Former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge asked for it.

So, too, did former Gov. George Ryan. And Springfield millionaire William Cellini.

Now, it’s Jesse Jackson Jr. who will likely make the same pitch to a federal judge and that is: Give me a break on my sentence, I’m sick.

In Jackson’s case, it’s his mental health. Prosecutors, showing some skepticism, said they want to have their own experts evaluate Jackson.

The ex-congressman’s top lawyer, Reid Weingarten, had said his client’s behavior — embezzling $750,000 from his campaign fund to lavish himself and his wife with a $40,000 Rolex watch, spending $5,000 on four mink and fur capes in one day, rare memorabilia, and pricey vacations — was directly linked to his illness.

“He’s a shopping addict, sir?” a reporter called out somewhat sarcastically at a February news conference.

Weingarten rolled forward, ignoring the question.

But that argument, believe it or not, has been used to a degree of success in federal court.

In 2003, Elizabeth Roach of Chicago was convicted of embezzling $250,000 from her job at then-Andersen Consulting. Her defense at sentencing: She was a shopaholic. Depression led her to shop compulsively, including for a $7,000 belt buckle and $3,000 earrings at Neiman Marcus.

“This is a place in the law to accommodate chronic mental illness,” her lawyer, Jeffrey Steinback, argued then. Steinback said Roach was “emotionally isolated” and her illness caused her “to do things to relieve this depression.”

Her tales of woe persuaded a judge to spare her prison time.

Prosecutors appealed and an appellate court later ordered re-sentencing. She got one year.

It’s well-known in legal circles that after a defendant is convicted of a crime his or her various “illnesses” — sometimes overblown — will be laid bare in court.

Before his sentencing, Ryan’s lawyers wrote in 2006 that the former governor “suffers from numerous illnesses,” including Crohn’s disease and diabetes. “Even a sentence of 30 months could take away the last healthy years of his life. . . . It is highly likely that he will die in prison,” they said.

In January, Ryan was released from his six-year prison term, having outlived his wife and appearing far more fit and trim than before he entered federal confines.

Ryan’s former chief of staff Scott Fawell has admitted he exaggerated his alcohol dependency to shave time off his sentence.

Rod Blagojevich was not publicly known to have abused alcohol — until after it was determined he was prison-bound. Alcohol counseling in prison may now help shave a year off his 14-year sentence.

After his perjury conviction, Burge’s attorneys asked for a break on his sentence, in part, because he had cancer. Prosecutors asked that he get substantially more than the 15 to 21 months the U.S. Probation Department recommended. He got 4½ years.

Cellini was convicted in an attempted shakedown scheme of a Hollywood producer. Arguing he had prostate cancer and heart issues, the defense wanted probation. Prosecutors wanted eight years. His sentence: one year and one day.

In his case, Jackson’s illness pre-dated the public airing of a criminal investigation.

Jackson’s congressional office initially cited “exhaustion,” then word came out that he had gastrointestinal issues and, finally, bipolar depression. The public, as well as Jackson’s colleagues, were skeptical of the evolving explanations. In October of last year, the Chicago Sun-Times first reported that Jackson was under federal investigation for misusing his campaign fund. The newspaper also has reported that federal authorities believed last year Jackson was tipped to the pending federal investigation that was active before his mysterious June 10, 2012, disappearance from Congress. Three weeks after Jackson was re-elected in absentia, he resigned and publicly acknowledged a federal investigation.

While prosecutors have challenged health claims made by prison-bound defendants in the past, legal observers say it’s a trickier task when looking at mental health issues.

That’s because it could end up helping Jackson’s argument.

When Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges in 2008, Jackson Jr. was under intense scrutiny because wiretaps had the former governor mentioning Jackson and saying he offered — through an emissary — $1.5 million in exchange for an appointment to the U.S. Senate.

Jackson was interviewed by the FBI, and he even testified as a witness, called by the defense at the former governor’s trial.

Through it all, Jackson was in the thick of breaking federal laws, using campaign money to buy mounted elk heads and Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee memorabilia, according to his guilty plea.

If prosecutors point to that conduct and call it egregious, Jackson’s lawyers may find it fits perfectly into their argument of: “I wasn’t of right mind when I committed the crime,” said former U.S. Attorney Reid Schar. Schar, now a partner with Jenner & Block, was the lead prosecutor in the Blagojevich investigation. Still, Schar said it isn’t unusual for prosecutors to have their own expert evaluate a defendant and for a defendant to submit to such an evaluation.

“You really can’t walk in as a defendant and say: ‘Here’s what my psychiatrist says who has been treating me, and that’s the gospel and cannot be questioned,’ ” Schar said. “If mental [health] issues are the heart of the defendant’s mitigation argument, then you have to be prepared to defend it.”

Strategically, Schar said that in this case prosecutors may be better served not to challenge mental health with their own expert but drill down into the case and pull out details that dispute Jackson’s claims that he wasn’t of right mind or couldn’t control himself. For instance, citing the length of the scheme and Jackson’s specific actions to cover his tracks.

Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney in Washington, made no bones about his skepticism over Jackson’s claims that mental health issues drove his behavior.

“The nature of this spending makes clear that this was not momentary lapse of judgment, this was not a short-streak of impulsive behavior. Over seven years, the Jacksons engaged in over 3,100 transactions for their personal gain,” he said after the charges were made public. “It is clear that Jesse Jackson became convinced that his campaign account could be used to satisfy his personal whim.”

The defense will also have the task of having to explain how Jackson’s wife, Sandi, factored into the scheme. The former alderman is cited throughout her husband’s plea deal, and she pleaded guilty to tax counts tied to using her husband’s campaign fund.



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