Sheehan

File this under 2 wrongs

Staff WriterOctober 21, 2009 

******

CORRECTION

Ruth Sheehan's column Wednesday referred incorrectly to the amount of time to which life sentences were limited in the 1970s. During much of the decade, the law limited life sentences to 80 years.

****** So this is what passes for justice these days.

North Carolina is releasing a bunch of rapists and murderers 30-some years into their life sentences. And a hard-working, if troubled, lawyer is facing the possibility of spending the rest of his days in federal prison for depositing his cash in amounts to avoid federal reporting requirements.

All thanks to what amount to technicalities in the law.

For the murderers and rapists, it was a legal interpretation that said when these prisoners were first incarcerated, a life sentence was 40 years, plus time off for good behavior. So phooey on the new life-is-life interpretation. Set 'em free.

For Johnny Gaskins, the lawyer, the technicality was a rule that says it's better to keep your money under the mattress than to deposit it in increments of just less than $10,000. At least, that's what it comes down to.

Let me explain.

The feds have been investigating Gaskins for years. He'd successfully defended alleged drug dealers in federal court. So when the feds started poking around Gaskins' finances, they no doubt thought they'd find evidence of money laundering.

They did not.

Instead, they found that Gaskins had earned $355,000 in cash over five years and had filed all the appropriate paperwork on it and had paid his taxes.

But Gaskins had grown paranoid, justifiably or not, over the years. The feds determined that Gaskins, after storing his fortune initially in a home safe (OK, so it wasn't a mattress), was depositing it in increments of just below $10,000 -- the threshold requiring the bank to report the deposits.

That's a reporting threshold that is mainly used to help the IRS track down tax scofflaws. Except, of course, Gaskins had reported all of his earnings on forms that not only included the payments but also the source of the money and who paid it.

"He gave the government more information than the banks ever would," said Dan Boyce, Gaskins' lawyer.

In the end, the jury found Gaskins guilty of making sneaky, just-under-the-threshold deposits. But it also decided that Gaskins could keep his hard-earned and fully reported money.

To me, that was an acquittal.

Unfortunately, the judge will still expect to see Gaskins on Feb. 1 for sentencing. For seven counts of structuring deposits to avoid alerting the IRS, there is a very real possibility that he could spend up to 35 years -- or, at 59, the rest of his life -- in an already overstuffed federal prison system.

Top to bottom, the case has been a massive waste of resources and an overzealous exercise of government muscle. But that's not the worst of it.

People sometimes talk about victimless crimes. Here, the only victims are a troubled lawyer and his family, including his two teenaged children.

All thanks to what comes down to a technicality. Kinda like the one that's setting killers and rapists free.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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