Critics who say retired Saints safety Darren Sharper got a cushy plea deal after admitting he drugged and raped numerous women while retired from the NFL now have some official support for their position, according to a law enforcement source familiar with the case.
Federal probation officials, the source said, have concluded that Sharper should serve approximately double the nine-year prison term that his lawyers and federal prosecutors agreed to in May as the linchpin of a “global” deal to resolve charges that Sharper drugged and raped or attempted to rape nine women in four states.
Court records show that federal probation officials filed their “presentence investigation report” under seal Oct. 9 with U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo, along with a recommended sentencing range. The judge ordered the report in May, when Sharper pleaded guilty to three federal drug counts, including conspiracy and distribution with “the intent to commit rape.”
Attorneys for the government and criminal defendants often quibble with such recommendations and argue for adjustments up or down. In any case, the recommendations are not binding, and in Sharper’s case, Milazzo can’t use them as a guide to adjust the retired All-Pro’s sentence.
Under the terms of Sharper’s federal guilty plea, Milazzo can only approve the 108-month deal or reject it.
“She cannot modify it,” Matthew Chester, a former federal prosecutor in New Orleans, said of the type of plea that Sharper reached. “She can choose to reject it, at which point the parties go back to square zero. It’s as if it never happened.”
Milazzo held Sharper’s federal guilty plea in abeyance pending her final decision, meaning Sharper still can withdraw it. That scenario could place Sharper in a dicey spot, however, for he has already admitted guilt to rape charges elsewhere as part of a package deal with prosecutors in Arizona, California, Nevada and Louisiana. Sharper also has likely “debriefed” with investigators and perhaps also testified before a grand jury, a component of his agreement that is required to take place before his sentencing in Louisiana.
At least some of those guilty pleas and agreed-upon sentences can’t be taken back, according to the terms of a unique, 14-page agreement engineered by Sharper’s attorneys.
The deal describes a litany of conditions underpinning Sharper’s pleas of guilty or no contest this year in four state courts, along with the federal guilty plea.
Milazzo has twice pushed back a sentencing date for Sharper, and no new date has been scheduled. The judge has asked Sharper’s attorneys and federal prosecutors to justify, in writing, the agreement that would see the 40-year-old retired defensive back released from federal prison in 2024.
Some critics have mocked it as a sweetheart deal, noting the number of victims and the reach of Sharper’s admitted criminal scheme.
The deal’s defenders, including Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, have described it as a solid deal, given the challenges of successfully prosecuting rape cases — particularly drugging cases in which the memories of victims often are muddled by design. Los Angeles prosecutors also cited witnesses’ reluctance to be identified in court.
In New Orleans, the police detective who investigated the Sharper case was one of five detectives at the heart of a scathing report last year by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office.
If the deal holds up, Sharper would report to California parole officials in 2024 following his federal prison term and then would face a lifetime of restrictive probation conditions as a registered sex offender in Arizona.
His Louisiana sentence under the agreement is particularly unusual. It calls for a 20-year sentence but says Sharper would get credit for time spent in federal prison as well as on parole or probation. Normally, convicts sentenced to such crimes in Louisiana must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence — 17 years, in Sharper’s case — behind bars.
Milazzo recently granted a joint motion by Sharper’s lawyers and U.S. Attorney Ken Polite’s office to submit their arguments for “the appropriateness of the stipulated sentence” under seal.
The report submitted by federal probation officials last month would not take into account any credit that Sharper could potentially receive for cooperating against his two co-defendants, or perhaps others, said Chester, now a private attorney who has not been involved in the Sharper case.
Sharper’s cooperation is mandatory under the global deal, which says he must “answer any questions posed, and will testify at any proceeding in state or federal court if requested,” or risk seeing the deal fall apart.
Still facing charges in both federal and state cases in New Orleans are former St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office Deputy Brandon Licciardi and Erik Nunez, a former steakhouse waiter who befriended Sharper and is accused of joining the retired NFL star in the rapes of two women at Sharper’s condo on Tchoupitoulas Street on Sept. 23, 2013.
Both Licciardi, 30, and Nunez, 28, face federal drug conspiracy counts as well as state aggravated rape charges that carry mandatory life prison terms upon conviction.
Licciardi and Nunez have pleaded not guilty in both courts. In the federal case, they each are accused of taking part in a conspiracy with Sharper “and others” to ply women with the elicit party drug Ecstasy and prescription drugs such as Ambien and Xanax in a scheme to rape them.
At least some of the delay in Sharper’s federal sentencing appears to be the result of an investigation in which probation officials sought out records of “similar criminal conduct” to weigh in their calculations of the appropriate sentencing guideline range. U.S. Probation Officer Marilyn Brasset in July requested a 45-day delay to gather police reports from Los Angeles, where Sharper pleaded no contest in March to two counts of rape by use of drugs and four counts of furnishing a controlled substance.
Such sentencing recommendations look at “relevant conduct,” whether a defendant has been convicted of it or not, that can significantly hike the calculations, Chester said.
It’s possible that probation officials also considered a similar allegation that Miami police investigated but for which no charges were filed or arrest made.
Such sealed reports aren’t limited to a defendant’s criminal history, Chester added.
“A lot of times they’ll have sensitive information — alcohol, drug abuse, family names and all kind of stuff in there,” he said. “It’s really a whole history of the defendant.”
All of the rapes to which Sharper has pleaded guilty took place after his retirement from the NFL. Thus far, he has been sentenced only in Arizona, where he accepted a nine-year term. The global agreement doesn’t require he serve any of the time there.
Sharper is believed to have been swayed to plead guilty by the prospect of doing his time in federal prison, which is generally considered easier.
Meanwhile, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman has said she will not sentence Sharper in the state criminal case in Louisiana until after his federal sentencing and after the state case against Nunez and Licciardi plays out. In that case, a grand jury indicted Sharper on two counts of aggravated rape and a count of simple rape over two separate incidents in 2013 involving three women.
Sharper, who remains locked up in the St. Tammany Parish jail, last appeared in Herman’s courtroom on June 15, pleading guilty to lesser charges: two counts of forcible rape and one of simple rape.
Local defense attorney Billy Gibbens, one of Sharper’s attorneys in the federal case, declined to comment for this story.
Such all-or-nothing deals, with set sentences that the judge cannot adjust, are rare in federal court, Chester said, but not without precedent.
“When the government asks (for it), they generally have good reasons to do so,” he said. “Whereas it might appear to be a ‘sweetheart deal,’ we don’t always know what they know. I’m sure they’re having to justify it and give reasons now to the judge to convince her.”
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