Saturday, January 30, 2010

What is justice?

Eleven months.

I’m sure there are people who believe that the only injustice related to the criminal case against one-time Chicago alderman Edward R. Vrdolyak is that he didn’t receive a prison term when the chance occurred last year, and that he has spent the past 11 months on probation while living in his mini-mansion on the city’s East Side neighborhood. THOSE PEOPLE ARE extremely happy now, following the ruling made Friday by a federal appeals court panel that took away Vrdolyak’s punishment of five years probation and said he must be re-sentenced for his “guilty” plea on charges that he helped rig a financial deal so as to gain part of a $1.5 million finders fee.

When he got the probation, there were those who were livid at the thought that their fantasy of “Fast Eddie” sitting in a roach-infested prison cell was not going to come true. I fear too many people are going to feel pressure to feed that fantasy, rather than consider what is (or is not) the right thing to do.

Some of those people may even want him to share a cell someday with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, but the idea of a one-time politico of Croatian ethnic background getting locked up with a Serbian politico (Milorod) sounds too much like a sick joke.

But much of this attitude has an element of sick jokes to it.

ADMIT IT. THERE are large segments of our population who look down on Vrdolyak, whose political activities of just over two decades ago in thwarting the desires of then-Mayor Harold Washington has some Chicagoans of a certain age enjoying the thought of a now elderly Vrdolyak being punished.

While I remember the sleaziness of the sentiment that caused the Washington opposition within city government during the mid-1980s, I don’t want it intruding on this case. Technically, it isn’t relevant. This just strikes me as a case with so much irrelevant history to it.

In the case of Vrdolyak, a federal appeals court panel of three judges voted 2-1 in favor of overturning the court ruling from February 2009 that resulted in the one-time Chicago alderman receiving probation (rather than time in jail) for his guilty plea on charges related to a real estate deal along Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

Vrdolyak’s “guilty” plea remains intact. But now, someone other than Judge Milton Shadur will have to impose sentence. And with the fact that this case will have the eyes of the public all over it even more intensely than they already were, a prison term seems ever so likely.

IF PEOPLE THOUGHT the outcry over Vrdolyak getting probation once was outrageous, just think of how much they will rant and rage if a second judge tries to show sympathy for him. Prosecutors are asking for a 3 ½-year prison term, and I’m wondering if some judge will feel the need to grant it just because it will make the public happy.

A part of me wonders if Vrdolyak had just been sentenced to prison initially, would it have been for a term that possibly could be nearing completion by now? Is the end result of the legal gamesmanship taking place now going to be that Vrdolyak’s fate will be dragged out for a longer period of time – perhaps one that will last the rest of his life (the man is approaching 73 years of age).

In learning of the appeals panel’s ruling, it comes down to how much of a judgment call Judge Shadur should be allowed to make. When he imposed sentence last year, Shadur said he was influenced by the fact that he could not see that anyone suffered serious financial loss due to Vrdolyak’s actions.

Judge Richard Posner wrote for that panel that Shadur did not properly calculate what constitutes financial loss, although Judge David Hamilton wrote in a dissent that he thought Shadur did consider it thoughtfully, and also was swayed by Vrdolyak’s private character.

THE LATTER FACTOR probably means that Vrdolyak has mellowed somewhat from the days when he was Washington’s most outspoken (although from from only) critic in city government.

The former factor most likely means that an appeals panel majority believes that Shadur did not properly take into account the factor that Vrdolyak is disliked enough by some Chicagoans that he must appear to be punished with prison. Other options cannot be taken into account, even if a judge seriously believes they are relevant.

What I’m now wondering is if the same people who last year criticized Shadur are now going to be critical of Hamilton? After all, he wasn’t taking enough of a knee-jerk reaction critical of Vrdolyak.

The end result of this could soon be the sight of a man in his eighth decade of life whose best/worst political days are long behind him taking up prison space. Which in my opinion seems like such a waste.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Edward Vrdolyak isn’t as free today as when he woke up Friday morning ( Will this legal battle ( ever come to an end.

The family law firm remains ( in place, although Eddie himself has been retired since entering his “guilty” plea.

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