Lawyer in a web

October 24, 2009 

Johnny Gaskins of Raleigh for many years was a successful and sought-after lawyer for people accused of crimes, often drug dealing. It was a rough crowd, and payments often were in cash. Then the tables turned, and Gaskins was the one caught in the prosecutors' web. His crime? The money did it.

There are good reasons why the federal government has a rule requiring banks to report large cash deposits. If ordinary folks need to deposit $10,000 or more -- say, the proceeds of selling a car or house -- they bring a check. Cash can be a sign of illegal activity.

For reasons best known to himself, Gaskins accumulated a cash stash -- money he had collected from clients who tended to do business that way. He declared the cash, more than $450,000, as income and paid his taxes. But when it came to depositing the money, he broke it down into bank deposits just under the $10,000 reporting threshold. That was a no-no, and he was tried and convicted.

Now, the federal court in its wisdom must decide whether Gaskins, 60, is to be sent up the river -- a prison sentence could run as long as 35 years. Since a law was broken, punishment is in order. But a long sentence -- indeed, any active sentence at all -- would seem excessive. After all, the lawyer did not try to disguise the fact that he had the money. Was the money "tainted"? If he did anything improper along those lines, professional discipline would be the right remedy.

Gaskins during his career has defended many people unpopular with the authorities, including a cop killer who was spared the death penalty. A harsh sentence would only underscore questions in some minds as to any link between his prosecution and his clients -- clients who may have done bad things, but who were entitled to counsel. This is a situation where justice should be tempered with mercy and common sense.

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