Monday, January 24, 2011

Guest Post: Conspiracy!

(ed. note: Gman-1104 is a retired prosecutor who has volunteered to share his observations on cases in the news. His occasional posts in plain English will help the non-lawyer types (like me) understand what’s going on. With more than 20 years as a prosecutor, his insight should prove useful and informative. Enjoy!)

What exactly is a conspiracy, and how does law enforcement manage to infiltrate or expose them? Good questions, and I will attempt to answer them in plain English rather than legal jargon.


What is a conspiracy?

In many state legal systems, a conspiracy exists when two or more people agree to break the law at some point in the future, and there must also be evidence of an overt act to further the goals of the conspiracy. That requirement no longer exists in federal jurisprudence, thanks to a landmark US Supreme Court decision in a case called United States v. Shabani. So, even if neither you nor any other conspirators actually did anything that advanced your evil plans, you could still be convicted of a federal crime. This is disconcerting for a lot of ordinary Americans, because without the requirement of evidence of an overt act in furtherance, any two people might be accused of a federal crime, even though no evidence exists that you actually carried out your plot! However, there is little cause for alarm, as the burden of proof in such cases is mighty high. You would have to have some evidence of the agreement.

How does law enforcement infiltrate or expose a conspiracy?

In every one of the conspiracy cases I was involved in as a prosecutor, the undoing of the conspiracy was always the same--someone talked. You see, the ability to keep a lid on and advance the goals of any conspiracy is inversely and exponentially related to the number of conspirators involved. A three man deal is three times more likely to blow up than a two man deal. A four man deal is four times more likely, and so on. Simply put, the more people involved the more likely that I or one of my colleagues would have the conspirators in handcuffs before they could perpetrate their crimes.

In the current case of US vs. McGregor et al, there are actually very few people with direct knowledge of the whole affair. The prosecution alleges that the "big fish" in the conspiracy are Milton McGregor, Ronald Gilley, Tom Coker, Robert Geddie and to a lesser extent, Jarrod Massey. All of the others were either victims of the conspiracy or were caught up by their own political or financial greed.

Another interesting aspect of criminal conspiracies is what happens after the plot is exposed and the alleged perpetrators charged with the crime. The US Attorney's Office is famously practiced in the art of playing the conspirators against one another. It is already an established fact that these people are criminals and inherently untrustworthy. The government knows this well, but uses this knowledge against the conspirators. They create such a toxic atmosphere of distrust and suspicion among those charged that, inevitably, someone starts singing to save their own skin.

You can see some of that occurring already in the McGregor case, and it was nearly six months before jury selection when the first big player started singing! Imagine what must be going through the minds of Milton McGregor about the people who worked for him. Gilley has already been rolled on when Massey agreed to his deal. Will one of McGregor's men turn on him, too? Will McGregor turn on Coker, Geddie or both? At this point, I can safely assume that none of the defendants in that case trust each other. Certainly not to the degree they did when they allegedly hatched their plot to buy votes and influence legislation.

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