Thabo Sefolosha’s “Grand Risk”
Oct. 15, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Thabo Sefolosha is a free man. Friday, a jury of his peers found him “not guilty” of misdemeanor obstructing government administration, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The system worked the way it should, and the world moves on, Yet the press is still in awe over the concept of Sefolosha taking a risk and pushing a case like this to trial.
This was a serious gamble by Sefolosha. Had he been convicted of the two charges, each of those charges would have carried a possible sentence of up to 12 months in jail. Even if Judge Robert Mandelbaum had only imposed a suspended sentence or probation (that is, no jail time), such a sentence would have been damaging to Sefolosha’s reputation. Sefolosha could have also faced league discipline if he had been convicted.
Let’s rewind a bit and explain why this is an occasion worth discussing. Thabo Sefolosha is an NBA player for the Atlanta Hawks who had his leg broken by an NYPD officer during an arrest outside the 1OAK nightclub in April, 2014. He was mistakenly identified, but that didn’t matter to the police.
According to the 31-year-old, he was walking away from a commotion outside of the 1Oak nightclub in New York City, accompanied by his team-mate Pero Antic (who was also arrested that night but had the charges dropped against him soon after) and two women. Sefolosha said he was followed by officer John Paul Giacona who said to him, “With or without a badge, I’m going to fuck you up and I can fuck you up.” Sefolosha claimed he was then attacked when he extended his arm to give money to a homeless person by the name of True.
“Two or three officers were pulling me. I said, ‘Relax.’ They never gave me a direct order. One is pulling on my right. One is pulling on my left and someone had a hand on my neck,” Sefolosha said.
For failure to comply with NYPD commands, Sefolosha got a broken leg and was forced to miss the NBA playoffs last year. He maintained his innocence of the charges levied against him, and decided to push his case to trial. The District Attorney’s office, however, had to know this one needed to be swept under the rug, so they came in with a sweet deal a month before trial.
Last month, prosecutors offered Sefolosha a remarkably favorable deal: if he participated in one day of community service and avoided legal issues for six months, the charges against him would be dropped and his record would be cleared. Many, if not most, defendants charged with crimes would quickly accept such an offer.
This is the point where every baby criminal defense attorney and every single public defender is yelling their heads off about how great a deal this is, how Sefolosha is lucky to get off with just a day of “community service,” and how you shouldn’t risk your entire career “on the principle of the thing.” I can’t say that I wouldn’t have been strongly suggesting he take this deal. Sefolosha’s answer to the deal was simple.
Sefolosha declined, reasoning that he had done nothing wrong and he wanted to use the trial to expose the arresting police officers as treating him in a racist way.
His “no thanks” meant the deal got sweeter. It went from “one day of community service” to “just stay out of trouble for six months and this will be expunged.” Sefolosha still said “no,” and decided to take the matter to trial. He put on his case, and a jury found him “not guilty” in short order.
Sefolosha’s statements post trial reveal a better understanding of his alleged “risk” than some media outlets seemed to understand. It wasn’t a “gamble” taking the stand in his defense. It wasn’t a roll of the dice. It was a guy who had the money and the resources to take a stand doing just that.
“It’s troubling to me that with so much evidence in my support that this case would even be brought to trial and that I had to defend myself so hard to get justice,” [Sefolosha] said in a statement. “It pains me to think about all of the innocent people who aren’t fortunate enough to have the resources, visibility and access to quality legal counsel that I have had.”
In case Sefolosha’s statements aren’t enough for you to grasp the heart of the matter, try this little bit of elocution from Tom Ziller of SBNation.
Thabo was lucky. He had the money to hire a good lawyer. He had a boss, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, willing to testify in support of him. He’s represented by a union that went to bat for him, both in ensuring he’d get a paycheck despite his injury and in ensuring he had what he needed as the case went to trial. Thabo was lucky in that he’s a professional basketball player and not someone without the resources to defend himself in court.
There, at the heart of this matter, lies the fundamental truth: this was no “risk” to anyone who understands the adversarial justice system. Thabo Sefolosha did what anyone smart enough to hire competent counsel would do. He protested his innocence, refused to “play ball” with the prosecution, and moved forward to trial when counsel found there was a “comically weak” case.
People in the media seem to think this was a “risk.” It wasn’t, from the moment Thabo lawyered up and got started with litigation. Not every case needs to be pled out, and not every client needs to take what’s being offered. Sometimes they really are innocent, and Thabo Sefolosha is grateful for finding an attorney who said, “but what if he’s innocent?”