Federal prosecutors often make defendants an offer they can’t refuse: plea guilty to at least one charge with a comparatively light sentence or spend gobs of money to defend against myriad charges and risk spending decades in prison. From Jacob G. Hornberger at fff.org:
Some anti-Russianites and Trump critics are saying that the guilty plea by 30-year-old Russian citizen Maria Butina confirms that the Russian government was meddling in the 2016 presidential election. It’s true that Russia might well have been helping Donald Trump, who was committed to establishing friendly relations with Russia, defeat Hillary Clinton, who was committed to maintaining a relationship of anger, animosity, and hatred toward Russia. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Butina’s guilty plea to agreeing to fail to register as a foreign agent establishes that she was knowingly part of a conspiracy within the Russian government to meddle in the presidential election. Anyone who believes that has a genuinely naïve and innocent way of viewing the federal criminal justice system, which is akin to how sausage and congressional laws are made, which many people would rather not see or know about.
Here’s how the federal criminal-justice system works.
When the feds decide to target someone, they charge them with every conceivable crime that even remotely relates to the targeted person’s conduct. The potential time in jail, if convicted on all counts, usually adds up to several decades or even to life in prison.
The reason the feds do this is to coerce a plea of guilty from their target. What the feds do is offer the person an opportunity to plead guilty to one count of the indictment in return for a dismissal of all the other counts.
The deal can include an agreed-upon sentence for the count to which the person is pleading guilty or the sentence can be left up to the judge.
The feds make it clear that if the deal is rejected, they will go to trial on all the counts in the indictment and, if successful in securing convictions, will ask the judge to impose the maximum possible punishment, which could be decades in jail. Federal judges go along with this vicious game by severely punishing defendants who exercise their right of trial by jury but then lose.
Thus, the person is left with a very uncomfortable choice: Should I take the chance and go to trial, in which case I am facing 30 years or so if I lose? Or should I plead guilty to a felony and limit the amount of time I will have to serve in jail, either by agreement or in the hope that the judge will show mercy?
There is another factor for targeted people to consider: the exorbitant costs of attorney’s fees to go to trial. Federal prosecutors, for all practical purposes, have virtually unlimited funds to finance their prosecution. Moreover, federal prosecutors are on the government dole. Their salaries are paid out of the taxes that the IRS collects from the citizenry.
If the defendant has retained counsel, she will be paying something like $700-$1000 an hour during the entire course of the trial. If she is convicted, appeals follow. By the time the case is over, the defendant could easily compile several hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees, which can end up bankrupting the person. If the defendant is using a public attorney, on the other hand, he knows that he is probably not getting the type of first-class legal defense that he’d be getting from a private-sector lawyer, which means that he stands a better chance of losing.
There was also the possibility that the feds could charge Butina with spying, a prospect that the anti-Russianites and Trump critics were raising in the mainstream press. And we all know what they do with spies. They execute them.
Weighing all this, many people decide to take the plea deal.
Now, we don’t know what machinations went into Maria Butina’s guilty plea. What we do know is that she was a graduate student who clearly loves politics and who spent an inordinate amount of time befriending people in the conservative movement, making contacts, and attending conferences sponsored by such organizations as the Heritage Foundation, CPAC, the NRA, and Freedom Fest. In the process, she supposedly was providing updates on her activities to some bank official within the Russian government.
We also know that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been clearly interested in bettering relations with the United States and, therefore , was logically rooting for Trump to defeat Clinton.
We also know that the feds are claiming that certain Russians were buying Facebook ads to convince people to vote for Trump.
Was Butina serving as an actual official secret agent of the Russian government as she made contacts and attended conferences of conservative think tanks and foundations? Anything is possible, although it’s worth noting that Putin expressed no knowledge of who she was. Or was it more likely that she was like any other young person who happens to be passionate and enthusiastic about politics and was just striving to improve relations between her country and the United States and, in the process, keeping some officials in her own country, who were also interested in improving relations with the United States, abreast of her activities?
My hunch is that Butina would have been able to beat the rap for supposedly violating the FDR-era 1938 law that requires foreign agents to register with the federal government. Simply advising Russian officials of what she was doing to improve relations with the United States or asking for input from them on what else she could do improve relations would not make her an official secret agent of the Russian government. I also think she could have beat any spy charge.
But my hunch also is that she finally realized that she couldn’t take a chance. Being 30-years-old and facing the possibility of spending the next 30 years in jail in an American jail would not be very attractive. Pleading out to a failure-to-register charge, with a sentence probably equal to the time she has served in jail, would seem to be the prudent thing to do, especially given the attorney’s fees that could be saved.
Of course, Butina shouldn’t have been charged with anything. First, she clearly wasn’t a spy. Second, her prosecution stems from the severe anti-Russia animus of the U.S. national-security establishment that stretches back to its Cold War need for an official enemy to justify its ever-growing expenditures and largess. And third, there shouldn’t even be a foreign-agent registration law, at least not in a country that purports to be based on freedom of speech.
It’s also a disgrace the way that feds have treated Butina in captivity. For months they have kept her in solitary confinement, which is a form of severe mental torture. That might well be another factor in her decision to plead guilty to the failure-to-register charge. People will often say or do anything to stop torture, especially if there is a good chance of a light jail sentence and of ending the torture by being deported home.