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Wizards star Gilbert Arenas avoids jail time in gun incident

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010; A01

Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was spared a jail term Friday for his gun-toting confrontation with a teammate at Verizon Center, walking free from D.C. Superior Court after a judge scolded him for immaturity but said probation was more appropriate than time behind bars.

Calling Arenas's now-infamous angry encounter with reserve guard Javaris Crittenton "a stupid and immature act," Judge Robert E. Morin recited a list of other factors in the case, finding that nearly all weighed in Arenas's favor. Rather than send him to jail for three months, as a prosecutor wanted, Morin imposed an 18-month suspended sentence and ordered Arenas to serve two years of probation, starting with a month in a halfway house, probably beginning next week.

The three-time NBA all-star, who must give $5,000 to a fund for crime victims, will be required to spend his nights in the halfway house but can leave daily to perform the 400 hours of community service (none of it basketball-related) that Morin also ordered.

"What we did that day was stupid, irresponsible," said Arenas, 28, referring to the Dec. 21 locker-room confrontation in which he displayed four handguns and Crittenton, 22, took out a semiautomatic pistol of his own. Authorities said they found no evidence that the guns were loaded. In deals with the U.S. attorney's office, each player pleaded guilty to illegal gun possession, a felony count in Arenas's case. Crittenton, sentenced to a year of probation in January, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

Morin, in a packed courtroom, said he was aware of the media's intense focus on the celebrity seated before him in a dark blue suit and blue suede loafers. As Arenas waited to hear his sentence, the judge said that he would not be influenced by the publicity or the fame of the defendant and that he had presided over hundreds of gun-possession cases, each time weighing identical factors before deciding whether to impose a jail term. Arenas benefited from nearly all the criteria.

Among the factors Morin noted: Arenas has no history of violence; there is no indication that his guns were loaded; no one was hurt; neither man pointed a gun at the other; Arenas legally owned the weapons in Virginia; and he took responsibility, cooperating in a police investigation and pleading guilty to a felony less than a month after the confrontation.

Although Arenas served probation in a prior gun case, seven years ago in California, Morin noted that the incident involved improper transportation of a pistol, not an armed confrontation. He also took into account Arenas's extensive work with local charities.

"I am very sorry that all this happened," said Arenas, who declined to comment later as he left the courthouse. "Every day I wake up wishing it didn't."

The sentencing climaxed a tumultuous winter for Arenas, one of Washington's best-paid and most recognizable athletes -- his future now uncertain after a dispute over a few hundred dollars in a poker game escalated into the chest-thumping display of handguns with Crittenton, a third-year NBA journeyman who was making $1.4 million this season to Arenas's $16.2 million. The two have been suspended without pay for the remainder of the season by the league.

Although Arenas's Jan. 15 guilty plea ended a highly publicized police investigation that roiled the Wizards, the case was far from over for him. In court Friday, with his freedom in the balance, the debate focused on his motive for taking the guns into the locker room, the severity of the offense, whether he had fully owned up to what he did and how much contrition he had shown.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher R. Kavanaugh, in seeking jail time, and defense attorney Kenneth L. Wainstein, in pleading for probation, echoed arguments they made in sentencing memos filed in court Tuesday. One portrayed Arenas as a lighthearted prankster who sometimes "regrettably" carries jokes too far; the other cast him as a petulant superstar bent on intimidating a marginal bench player who had "disrespected" him in front of their teammates.

Describing his client as "a peaceful man" who is "fundamentally very decent and unfailingly kind," Wainstein said in his memo that Arenas's "somewhat offbeat" sense of humor is rooted in his impoverished childhood, when he used laughter to mask his emotional pain. In this case, the attorney said, "a very misguided attempt to play a prank" had been overblown by the media and misconstrued by authorities as thuggish bullying.

"From the first moments after the incident, Mr. Arenas took actions that evinced a willingness to accept personal responsibility," Wainstein told the judge, saying that Arenas, when he realized he had broken the law, "chose to admit his offense, turn over his firearms and face the consequences."

But Kavanaugh painted a different picture, alleging that Arenas, in a pattern of "obstructive conduct," had lied and offered half-truths to Wizards management and the public about what took place in the locker room and at one point tried to enlist Crittenton and a team official in a coverup of the confrontation.

In trying to make his crime seem less significant, Arenas's "self-serving, ever-evolving" story "defies logic and credulity," the prosecutor wrote. He said Arenas, for example, had yet to come completely clean about when and why he brought the four guns into Verizon Center, even though he would face no further charges.

Arenas initially said he stored the guns in his locker before Dec. 21 to keep them away from his three young children at home in Great Falls. He said he displayed them to Crittenton as a spontaneous prank -- not a calculated attempt at intimidation.

Kavanaugh scoffed at Arenas's story of a spur-of-the-moment joke, however, saying a wealth of evidence shows that he took the four guns into the locker room on the morning of the incident, having planned the confrontation before he got there.

In Morin's courtroom, Arenas, 6-foot-4, rose to say his piece, his voice low and occasionally catching.

He recalled a much-publicized incident Jan. 5 in Philadelphia before a Wizards game with the 76ers, when a grinning Arenas, surrounded by his teammates, pantomimed that he was shooting them -- another joke for which he was widely scorned.

"I know my action wasn't the best for me . . . taking it lightly," he said. "But that's my personality. . . . That's who I am. I like making people laugh. I like making people smile."

Both sides agreed on what led to the gun incident: a loud argument between the two players on a red-eye charter flight that landed at Dulles International Airport early Sunday, Dec. 20, after a Wizards loss in Phoenix the night before. With their teammates looking on, Arenas and Crittenton berated and threatened each other over the poker debt.

After Crittenton proposed a fistfight, Arenas threatened to shoot him and burn or blow up his Cadillac Escalade, and Crittenton threatened to shoot Arenas in his surgically repaired left knee, according to court filings. "We'll see on Monday," witnesses quoted Arenas as saying, referring to the team's scheduled practice the next morning.

"In the confined quarters of an airplane, a younger, junior player disrespected [Arenas] in front of the entire team," Kavanaugh wrote. The superstar, the public face of the Wizards, "Agent Zero," in the second season of a six-year, $111 million contract, "believed he had no choice but to respond. And he did," Kavanaugh wrote.

The question of how many guns Arenas took to Verizon Center that day and how many, if any, already were in his locker might never be settled. He has acknowledged putting a revolver and three semiautomatic handguns on a chair by Crittenton's locker before practice with a note reading, "PICK 1." Crittenton also took a gun to work that day, a semiautomatic, and he took it out. Others in the locker room fled, some "out of sheer fear," Kavanaugh said.

The confrontation soon lost steam, though, and the men put away their firearms.

As for Arenas's intent, Wainstein said his client "has never been motivated by malice." He said in court that Arenas and Crittenton, their confrontation notwithstanding, are good friends. He said the two have spoken by phone 19 times and exchanged 112 text messages since December.

When Crittenton's mother needed money for an operation recently, Wainstein said, Arenas sent a bank wire for $30,000.

Staff writers Ian Shapira and Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.

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