“Our entire justice system rests on the assumption that attorneys can be trusted to be ethical,” said Federal District Judge Dale Fischer. It was Monday morning and Fischer had just begun addressing a leniency request for super-lawyer Terry Christensen, 64, who'd been convicted last August of conspiracy and aiding in wiretapping.
Indeed, the sentencing hearing started with Christensen's lawyer, Terree Bowers, asking Fischer to accept the recommendations of a federal probation officer, who'd called for Christensen to pay a steep fine and serve home detention while wearing a monitoring bracelet. These suggestions hadn't impressed the government, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Saunders had earlier submitted a forceful dismissal of the sentencing recommendation.
Fischer's stone-faced expression left little doubt as to whose side she would favor as she listened to Bowers describe Christensen's legal ordeal as “humiliating,” and spoke of how Christensen had been disbarred, lost the law firm he'd built and had to resign as director from a couple of boards. Christensen had, Bowers said, already “experienced extraordinary consequences” for hiring private eye Anthony Pellicano to wiretap the phone conversations on behalf Christensen's billionaire client Kirk Kerkorian. (Pellicano had secretly recorded his phone calls with Christensen and those recordings, played in court during the five-week trial, had sealed the fate of both lawyer and P.I.)
When Bowers finished, Dan Saunders rose to note that a letter submitted by Christensen apologizing sorrow for his conduct “only expresses regret for hiring Anthony Pellicano, not for his actions – after three years of ruminating on his indictment,” while making no apologies to the victims of Pellicano's wiretaps.
Moments later Judge Fischer took over to address each and every one of Bowers' written requests, motions and citations for leniency. When she denounced Christensen's actions as attacking the sanctity of attorney-client privilege, a lawyer from a blue-chip L.A. firm, who was sitting in the audience, turned to people in the row behind and held up three fingers. Christensen could forget about that monitoring bracelet.
“There are no grounds for variance for aberrant behavior,” Fischer continued, then turned to Christensen's written apologia. “Mr. Christensen has not taken responsibility for his criminal activity and has shown no remorse for it . . . His regret seems of recent vintage.”
Fischer concurred with the government's view of the Sentence Lite recommendations that the federal probation officer had submitted.
“The probation officer's recommendation was ludicrous,” Fischer said. “Home detention in an 8,000-square-foot house is not punishment.”
Then the hammer came down: Fischer sentenced Christensen to 36 months in prison, to be followed by three years probation, and ordered him to pay a $250,000 fine within 30 days. She did allow him to remain free on bond while his lawyers appeal. It was 10:05 a.m.
Christensen stood stoically as he received his sentence, flanked by lawyers Bowers and Patty Glaser, who is a partner in his old firm. It could've been worse, though, as Christensen could have received five years for each of the two counts with which he was charged. Behind him sat Christensen's wife and son, who wore the uniform of a West Point cadet. If Christensen's appeals fail, he will be joining a very different kind of long gray line.