At this very moment, I’m rocking my beautiful baby girl to sleep in one arm while I write this on my phone with the other. I treasure this moment each and every night because I know what it’s like to miss out.
I don’t normally write about politics, and I try to avoid being too public about my legal history for fear of growing bitter. But today is challenging me.
Two years and four days ago, my wife picked me up from Texarkana, and I began rebuilding the life I’d left behind in 2012. I missed two years of rocking my son to sleep.
You see, I’d made some honest but careless mistakes in business born out of the youthful naivete that comes with trusting employers in your early twenties. The context revealed no evidence of guilt (“no smoking gun” according to two FBI agents on the case) on my part. Just a long series of “You should have known better” situations. According to one agent (and, unfortunately, a prosecutor), I “had to have known better.”
Between April 2009 and July 2012, I gained a whole new perspective on the federal legal system. For example, I learned that motive is hard to prove but no less hard to disprove in complicated cases. My attorney told me a trial would be basically a coin toss, that a jury would ultimately decide with one of two criteria:
- “This case is so complicated, there’s no way he could have known what was going on.” …or…
- “This case is so complicated, there’s no way he didn’t know what was going on.”
The difference, he said, was apt to be very emotional and could be swayed on a whim. Circumstance and context wouldn’t have much influence. Character witnesses (the only sort I would have been able to provide when “proving” innocence) would be summarily accepted or rejected based on the aforementioned whim. Basically, I’d be gambling with 30 years of my life.
I also learned that plea deals are often the way to go. When choosing between a 50/50 chance at 30 years in prison and a near certainty of 30 months, the math is pretty simple. Even for a guy who sucks at algebra. The trick, at least for someone adhering to some measure of integrity, is finding a plea that is honest. And it took a long time before I was offered one that was.
When I accepted this plea, I learned a third thing about the federal legal system. I learned that the legal hurdle of intent gets fuzzy around “conspiracy to commit fraud” charges. Turns out my day-to-day job was fraud, without me knowing it, because someone above my pay grade didn’t have their paperwork in order. I trusted the wrong people, and I was too young and foolish to “trust but verify”. However, a man with integrity has to own his actions. After all, the law says an honest mistake is a fraud, and no one is above the law.
Admittedly, I felt bullied by the threat of a massive sentence and a suspiciously timely lifeline, but I trusted that my circumstance was the exception, not the rule.
Much to my chagrin, the next few years would teach me another unfortunate lesson in reality. My plea wasn’t the exception. Over 95% of federal cases end with plea bargains. I mean, it’s such a high number that it sounds like a made-up statistic. But it’s a cruel reality. Honest and even innocent people frequently take pleas due to the threat of something far worse should a trial go wrong. Sure, lots of guilty people take pleas, too, but you’re kidding yourself if you think prosecutors are so flawless in their judgment that they should wield such power 95% of the time. It’s not an indicator of frequently flawless investigations. It’s an indicator of a broken system.
I had trusted in a broken employer. When he failed me, I trusted in a broken legal system. It failed me, too. A few times. Yet though my faith in the Department of Justice took another blow, I at least trusted that my circumstance was just an unavoidable situation. Everyone in business frequently commits felonies without realizing it, and I was unfortunate enough to be one of the few who got caught. And when someone gets caught, I trusted they would face the same reality as me.
It may be unfortunate that the law is written as it is, but at least no one is above it.
Above the Law
And then this statement came out of the freaking FBI’s mouth today.
To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions.
Full disclosure: I’m no Hillary Clinton fan. My attitude toward a Clinton presidency has been a blend of “the devil you know” and a consolation prize of a small feminist victory in having a woman in the Oval Office. So, in the grand scheme of things, I’d call my position “intentional indifference”. In 2016, I’ll likely be voting third party because I can’t in good conscience cast a vote for a “lesser of two evils”, no matter which side that arrives on.
However, my trust that no one is above the law, that the law is at least applied consistently, has been struck a fatal blow.
I won’t make statements about the intent of Mrs. Clinton. Maybe there’s a coverup; maybe there’s not. For my purposes, intent is irrelevant. And frankly, unless I’m on a jury of her peers, it’s not my place to judge her intent anyway.
I was inexperienced in business. I sent emails to a vendor containing requests for changes to our phone number. A $200 billion-dollar company lost around $80,000 over a few years. I cooperated from the literal first moment of the investigation, hoping to see justice done, but I went to prison because carelessness is criminal.
A former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State was experienced in matters of state (or at least she’d better be). She sent emails to people containing top secret information using a system that is possibly compromised by enemy agents and certainly inappropriate for such use. Her cooperation is debatable, but she’ll face no consequences because “no charges are appropriate in this case”.
Higher stakes. No consequences. I hate to ask the obvious question, but why is she so different from me? FBI Director Comey stated today:
Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.
The evidence wasn’t strong in my case. In general, it was circumstantial at best. As it pertained to intent, it was absent entirely. Context actually supported my case, though I can’t speak to similar past cases. So why was mine different?
If I’m honest, I’m jealous.
My daughter is smiling up at me, causing the baby formula to dribble out in a most unattractive way. But she’s beautiful because she loves me so much that my smile makes her smile. Which makes me smile. And so the cycle begins. She loves me, and it’s amazing. Her first word was “dada” and happened just a few days ago. It’s awesome.
Meanwhile, I have a five-year-old son who loves me in his own way but still acts as if I’m superimposed on the family as often as not. Some of that is his age talking. Some of it is a mild personality conflict. But if I’m honest with myself, some of it is because, for his second and third years of life, I was just a guy he went to visit once a month. He was still attached to me, but he couldn’t tell why. My reintroduction into the home has faced challenges, and I aggressively and prayerfully fight to recover the lost relationship.
I face ongoing consequences, too. I’ve served my time, but I owe millions of dollars of restitution that place additional burdens on my family. I can never own a gun, and if I ever move out of the state of Texas, I may lose my right to vote. Any career path I face will be haunted by a felony conviction, and I frequently face judgment from peers who learn about my past (felons, you see, are bad people). This will never end, short of a presidential pardon.
And that makes me jealous. In prison, I met many people who lost far more than me, and I don’t mean to diminish what they faced. But I lost a great deal and should have lost far more were it not for the grace of God. And yet Mrs. Clinton won’t face any consequences for her carelessness.
I don’t wish for anyone to go to prison who doesn’t deserve to be there. And it’s not my place to decide if Mrs. Clinton deserves to be there. Put me on a jury, and I’ll listen to trial proceedings and make that decision with integrity, but it is neither my place nor my privilege to send her there otherwise, even in my own heart. However, based on the criteria of my experience, she should at least face indictment.
Let’s skip the menacing one-two punch of a massive threat and a disproportionately small plea. That’s not justice for anyone. Director Comey closed with statements like “only facts matter” and “opinions are irrelevant”, yet the facts of my case were irrelevant and only the opinions of an FBI agent and prosecutor mattered for me.
I don’t fault them. I don’t believe justice was served in my case, but those involved were, near as I can tell, merely doing their job to the best of their abilities. But it hurts me more than it should to see this inconsistency at such a high level with so much at stake.
Mrs. Clinton may not face any consequences, yet my son continues to face the consequences for my grievous sin of carelessness.
Update: The Next Morning
After I went to bed last night last night, a good friend questioned my motivation for writing such a commentary. A valid question.
As he was typing that question out, I was immersed in one of my many “going back to prison” dreams. Like they usually go, some clerical error found my original sentence incorrectly served and (despite my layperson’s understanding of double jeopardy rules) I must re-serve my time.
And as always, this dream was an exercise in impotent rage as I watched my family and friends suffer through more torment and doubt at my recrimination.
Obviously, this wasn’t a reality. It was an irrational dream.
But the impotent rage was real. And all too familiar. And not just because similar dreams haunt me with some regularity.
These dreams are born out of fear, yes. But they are fueled by the frustration of helplessness that comes from being on the receiving end of our criminal justice system.
Those feelings resurface occasionally, usually on a subconscious level, prompting dreams like last night’s, but they remind me of their presence any time I interact with a legal authority.
Like when I got a speeding ticket a few weeks ago. My interactions with legal authorities used to be casual and trusting. Now I can’t even get pulled over without getting the shakes, often to the point of nausea.
Why I Shake
What prompted this post? Not unchecked bitterness, nor a desire to strategically resolve issues in our system, nor even annoyance at the current political climate. Nothing quite so obvious. It was impotent rage.
Quite simply, I’m still shaking inside, and this was the first time I’ve decided to be vocal about it. It was therapeutic. Cathartic, even.
It would be different if I could “learn a lesson” from my punishment, if I could walk away knowing how to avoid repeating my criminal past. But my sins were sins of carelessness, of honest mistakes — i.e. exactly the sort of thing I’ll spend the rest of my life doing without realizing it.
So I operate each day knowing that any day, for a reason I can neither foresee nor prevent with authentic efforts to live as a law-abiding citizen, I could get arrested, charged, and face prison time as a repeat offender.
In such a case, I will have next to no influence on its prevention or proceedings because, for better or worse, the law doesn’t distinguish between people, intent, or character. It’s objective.
But it’s still subjectively applied. Hence the rage.
And it’s still an immovable force. Hence the impotence.
And hence the shakes.
A Study in Contrasts
From my perspective, this story highlights that subjectivity and immobility, which has served to amplify the impotent rage.
Mrs. Clinton indeed made careless workplace choices. So did I.
Mrs. Clinton faced an investigation into her choices. So did I.
Mrs. Clinton intended to obey the law, per the FBI statement. So did I.
The difference was that her apparent intent exonerated her where mine was an irrelevance at best. In an arena where she was negligent and negligence is criminal (according to my rudimentary understanding), the FBI cannot recommend charges.
To be fair, an FBI recommendation may or may not influence a prosecutor in her case. In mine, it sent me to prison.
That’s why I wrote this post. In response to that discrepancy, I felt jealous, frustrated, and weak. Impotent rage, my friends. Impotent rage.
Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Hillary Clinton) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons