Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli surprised the world by pleading guilty in their college admission bribery case this week, and experts say it may have had something to do with the coronavirus pandemic. Loughlin and Giannulli were one of the most famous couples involved in the nationwide scandal and were hit with some of the most significant charges. Although they have maintained their innocence since the case began, some suggest that COVID-19 may have helped them get a better plea deal.
Loughlin and Giannulli were accused of paying about half a million dollars to a college admissions adviser, knowing that he would use it to pay bribes and get their daughters into college on a phony athletic scholarship. Unlike other defendants in the case known as "Operation Varsity Blue," they pleaded not guilty for months — up until Thursday. In an analysis for NBC News, writer Danny Cevallos suggested that Loughlin or her attorneys saw the coronavirus pandemic as the perfect time to shorten the already often abbreviated process of being tried for a white-collar crime.
Cevallos wrote that "most federal criminal defendants don't go to trial, but those who do are often found guilty." In general, this is why those accused of white-collar crimes often plead guilty, he explained. They see this as their best chance of avoiding the publicity fallout of their charges, and a way to minimize their prison sentence.
Loughlin and Giannulli were among the more rare cases who vow to fight against their charges, though after months of legal fees and bad press, Cevallos speculated that they were "drained" by the battle. However, the federal prosecutors had already tried to "incentivize" early guilty pleas — giving out lighter sentences quickly to parents who cooperated from the beginning. Since Loughlin and Giannulli spurned this offer early on, there was no way for them to turn back from their prolonged legal battle — until the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Based on the charges she pleaded guilty to, Loughlin could spend up to 20 years in federal prison. Even with the plea agreement she reached, she should reportedly be going in for at least 21 to 27 months. However, prosecutors have instead recommended just two months behind bars. This prison term is relatively closer to the ones served by those who pleaded guilty at the beginning of this scandal.
Prosecutors even dropped two counts of conspiracy leveled against Loughlin after she pleaded guilty to one of them. All in all, it seems hard to ignore the looming threat of COVID-19 and the part it may have played in this favorable sentencing. Federal prisons are overrun with the virus, and the federal bureau of prisons is scrambling to maintain security while protecting guards, staff and inmates. In many cases, non-violent offenders — including high profile white-collar criminals — are being moved to house arrest early to alleviate the burden. As Cevallos put it: "it's a bad time for the world, but a good time for those who are facing sentencing."