Lying to the Court Means Additional Prison Time

Posted on in Criminal Defense
If you have engaged in illegal activity, it may be in your best interest to enter plea negotiations with the government, accepting responsibility in exchange for a reduced sentence. It is also important to understand that you must tell the truth as a part of any plea bargain. Prosecutors and judges will treat a defendant more harshly if he or she has lied or misled them during the plea bargaining process. A recent decision from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago underscores this point.

United States v. Hargis

Lori Hargis faced a common problem among many homeowners in a down economy. She wanted to sell her Kentucky residence but could not find a buyer. She decided to burn the house down and collect on the insurance covering her as a homeowner. In 2007 she hired Leslie White to set the house on fire, which he did in December of that year. Hargis subsequently filed an insurance claim for $866,000 to cover the value of the house and its contents.

It is a federal crime to use any instrument of interstate commerce, such as the mail or internet, to unlawfully damage or destroy a building by means of fire. In 2011, a grand jury indicted Hargis and White on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud by using fire. White entered a guilty plea. The trial judge sentenced White to three years in prison, more than double what the U.S. attorney said the federal sentencing guidelines advised. The judge nonetheless felt the severe sentence was necessary to deter others who might contemplate a similar arson scheme.

Hargis initially signaled her intention to plead guilty as well. Once she got before the judge though, Hargis changed her story. She claimed that while she did initially hire White to burn down her house, she decided against the plan and called it off. White then burned the house down on his own initiative three months later.

The judge rejected Hargis' guilty plea, as she was no longer prepared to accept responsibility, and scheduled the case for trial. A few days before the case was set to go before a jury though, Hargis changed her story again. She now told the judge that she went to White for help, discussed the plan with him multiple times, and told him to light the house on fire once she made sure that her kids were not inside.

The court now accepted Hargis' guilty plea. The federal sentencing guidelines advised a prison term of less than two years. Instead, the judge imposed a five-year sentence, citing the fact she “burned down her own children's home” and initiated fraudulent litigation against her insurance company in an attempt to profit from the arson.

Don't Mess With the Courts

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld the five-year sentence. The appeals court agreed with the trial judge that Hargis' crime was “incredible,” not just because of the arson, but because she had “schemed and lied to the court” in an attempt to evade responsibility.

Of course, there are many cases where defendants are innocent or have just cause to change a previous plea, but it is essential never to lie to a trial judge or in any way be seen as manipulating the process. Such efforts will ultimately backfire, as they did for Lori Hargis.

If you or someone you know is facing serious charges, it is important not to take any action without the advice of an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today if you have any questions.
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