Pleading guilty could cut defendant's sentence

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Peter Kamaras and Catherine Slane participated in the same mortgage scheme. He brokered the fraudulent loans. She presided over closings and lied to banks about the distribution of the funds.

Kamaras, 49, of Pittsburgh will be out of prison by year's end. Slane, 55, of Tarentum isn't due out until 2018.

Why did he get an 18-month sentence and she a five-year prison term? The main reason, court documents make clear, is that he pleaded guilty while she maintained her innocence and went to trial.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees an accused person's right to trial, and scholars note that there isn't supposed to be a penalty associated with exercising that right.

"There is a lot of concern that innocent people may be pleading guilty because if they go to trial, they get more" time in prison, said civil rights attorney David Rudovsky, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The federal court system automatically reduces the guideline sentence for a defendant who pleads guilty. "Acceptance of responsibility," as the law calls it, can shave six months off the recommended sentence for a less serious crime and as much as eight years from a multidecade prison term.

An analysis of 100 mortgage fraud cases prosecuted to completion in Western Pennsylvania's federal courts, though, suggests that the reward for pleading -- and, conversely, the price of going to trial -- tends to be much more significant.

Of those 100 defendants, 93 pleaded guilty. Separating out 30 who provided substantial assistance to prosecutors leaves 63 defendants who pleaded guilty but did appear to get leniency for cooperating.

Those 63 defendants got average prison sentences of just over three years.

By contrast, the seven defendants who went to trial -- all of whom were convicted -- got sentences averaging just over 6 ½ years.

Why did those who went to trial get double the jail time of those who pleaded?

Federal sentencing guidelines for fraud suggest that prison terms are based largely on the amount stolen by the perpetrator or lost by the victims. The guideline system also includes "enhancements" for criminals who lead conspiracies, impact banks, victimize vulnerable people, craft particularly sophisticated frauds, obstruct justice or abuse positions of authority.

Some question the fairness of that process, saying it doubles down on the punishment.

"You assume with a higher loss amount there will be more victims, there will be more sophistication, there will be a greater impact on the banks," said attorney Barry Boss, co-chairman of Cozen O'Connor's Criminal Defense & Internal Investigations practice.

In practice, the prosecution's tallying of loss amounts and enhancements tends to stop when someone agrees to plead guilty but continues unabated when defendants opt for trial, the review of mortgage fraud cases shows.

Kamaras, for instance, pleaded guilty and was subjected to a loss amount under $100,000 and one enhancement, for use of a special skill.

In Slane's case, on the other hand, the prosecution argued for enhancements for the number and vulnerability of victims, abuse of a position of trust, a loss amount in excess of $1 million, the use of sophisticated means and a leadership role.

"We seek [enhancements] that the law and the facts support," said Brendan Conway, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case. "After somebody goes to trial, we have got a lot more information, and we're probably more motivated, too, in fairness, to seek the enhancements."

Defense attorney Thomas J. Farrell characterized it differently. "At trial, they pile on everything," he said. "That's really where people get hurt."

Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542. Twitter @richelord.

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