Plaxico Burress sat in the fifth row of seats in Room 1100 of the New York State Supreme Court building looking nervous. He fidgeted, he licked his lips. It was a few minutes before 10 a.m. on Thursday and Burress had good reason to look so uncomfortable.
As his lawyer would say later, there was no way out. So Burress, the former Giants wide receiver, pled guilty to a single charge of attempted criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, accepting the Manhattan district attorney’s offer of a two-year prison sentence rather than trying to beat New York’s strict gun laws in a trial.
He will be sentenced on Sept. 22, when he will begin serving his jail term. The minimum time he’s facing is roughly 20 months, so he will likely be released in May of 2011, when he will be 34 and out of the NFL for 2 1/2 seasons. He also has two years' probation to follow.
“Unfortunately, there is no legal defense we can offer,” Ben Brafman, Burress’ lawyer, told the court in accepting the plea deal. Brafman huddled with Judge Michael Melkonian and assistant DA John Wolfstaetter for several minutes before Burress entered a plea of not guilty, though that was quickly changed when Wolfstaetter said the plea offer that had been on the table for months was finally to be accepted.
“This is a perfect example of how bad judgment sometimes has very terrible consequences, consequences that are far more severe than may be justified,” Brafman told reporters outside the court building. The DA’s office had no comment.
Burress took a loaded gun into a midtown club late on Nov. 28 and accidentally shot himself in the thigh, setting off the chain of events that led to Thursday’s plea. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and DA Robert Morgenthau both took the uncharacteristic steps of publicly calling for jail time for Burress, who was released by the Giants in April.
“This was never a level playing field from day one,” Brafman said. “In this case, being a celebrity hurt him... If he were John Doe, he would have walked out of that club. Nobody at the hospital reported a gunshot wound. If he were irresponsible, if he were not a law-abiding citizen, he could have thrown that gun away.”
Burress also took the unusual step of testifying before the Manhattan grand jury weighing charges against him, on July 29. That strategy, to try and put a more human face on his case, did not work; the grand jury indicted Burress on two counts of felony gun possession on Aug. 4, with a maximum 15-year prison sentence if convicted.
And since that day, with the facts not in dispute, Burress considered a plea deal. His wife, Tiffany, a lawyer, is pregnant with their second child; Brafman said Burress only decided to accept the plea deal within the last 72 hours.
“The law does not allow there to be any discretion,” Brafman said. “We tried for eight months to get a plea for less than two years without success. If he went to trial and were convicted, he faced a significantly greater prison sentence. After an agonizing period of discussion, Plaxico decided he wanted to do this, put this behind him as quickly as possible, in the hope that when he is released he will be able to resume his stellar professional football career.”
That career, which was as bright as any in recent Giants history -- he caught the winning pass in Super Bowl XLII and signed a $35-million extension before the 2008 season -- seems very much over now. He faces a stiff suspension from the NFL when he leaves prison, and that’s if a team wants to sign him.
Brafman said he hoped NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would impose a suspension that takes effect while Burress is in jail, but there’s no precedent for that. Both Michael Vick and Donte Stallworth, two players who have recently served jail time, have suspensions pending during the season.