Gregg Jarrett: Just call him ‘Johnny Lucky’. Manziel skates on serious felony charges

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He’s no longer “Johnny Football.”  That’s for sure.  Instead, Johnny Manziel’s new moniker should be “Johnny Lucky.”

He’s lucky he was only indicted for a misdemeanor.  Otherwise, he’d be looking at 20 years in the big house and playing football only in a real-life prison version of “The Longest Yard”.

A Texas grand jury has indicted the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner for assaulting his girlfriend. But, as a Class A misdemeanor, conviction means a maximum punishment of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.  His lawyer may be able to negotiate a plea deal that will spare him incarceration in exchange for probation and community service.  We’ll see.

Manziel’s chief accuser is his now ex-girlfriend, Colleen Crowley.  Digesting her sworn affidavit is like reading the script of “Sleeping with the Enemy”.  Manziel sounds like a crazed, jealous man who abused a woman who tried to walk away from him.  Only she couldn’t.  He allegedly abducted her.  Not once, but twice.  In the same night.

Yes, the accused is presumed to be innocent.  It is a quaint, but fictitious notion still advanced by our system of justice.  And, for all we know, Crowley may turn out to be a prodigious liar or serial exaggerator.  But if she is telling the truth, here is how the case appears legally

The Affidavit

The January incident began inside a Dallas hotel room. Suspecting infidelity, an enraged Manziel allegedly threw Crowley on the bed, physically restrained her  from leaving, dragged her downstairs, and forced her into his car against her will.  While driving in the direction of Fort Worth, Crowley claims she jumped out of the moving vehicle, only to have Manziel drag her back by the hair, slamming her left ear and causing it to rupture.  As if that is not frightening enough, she says he threatened to kill her.

Assuming her affidavit is true, Manziel should be looking at multiple serious felonies.  Aggravated assault, two counts of kidnapping, and charges of intimidation, harassment and threats to kill, just to name a few.  If a jury were persuaded, he could well spend two decades behind bars.

So, why would a Texas grand jury charge the former Texas A & M football star with merely a misdemeanor?  It’s a mystery.

Grand juries deliberate behind closed doors and they don’t normally explain their reasoning.

The fact that Crowley has, reportedly, become “uncooperative” may be a factor.  It likely helped Manziel avoid the more serious charges.

The Reluctant Witness

It is not unusual for alleged victims to become reticent.  Abused spouses and girlfriends do not always relish the notion of reliving their nightmares in a court of law, especially when the case involves a high-profile defendant and an interested media. Then again, Crowley’s reluctance may have something to do with the undisclosed financial settlement she reportedly reached with Manziel.  More on that later.

If the complaining witness does not want to testify about what happened to her, can prosecutors still bring a criminal case?  You bet.  Crowley can be subpoenaed to testify at trial and be forced to answer questions about what happened.  She has no 5th Amendment privilege because she is not in legal jeopardy.  Nothing she says can incriminate her, assuming she did nothing wrong.  So far, she appears blameless.  That could change on a dime.

Should she refuse to testify, she could be held in contempt and jailed.  Of course, prosecutors do not want to appear to be re-victimizing the victim, so this would be a last resort.  If she testifies that her affidavit is exaggerated or untrue, she could be charged criminally with filing a false police report and/or perjury.

Again, prosecutors really don’t want to go there, but they could.

The Body Cam

The best witness may prove to be a camera.  Actually, a “body cam”.  It seems the police officer who reported to the scene was wearing one.  His conversation with Crowley was recorded.  Yes, it is hearsay –that is, an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted.  But that’s not a problem.  There is an exception to the hearsay rule called “spontaneous declaration”.  A statement is admissible if the utterance is considered “spontaneous” and made close in time to the underlying events or as they were still occurring.  It’s an immediate reaction to something and it tends to be credible and reliable because the person speaking hasn’t yet had a chance to premeditate or conjure a fabrication.

At trial, the reporting officer could authenticate the video or digital recording, allowing the jury to judge for itself.  At the same time the officer could offer his own testimony about what he observed.  How traumatized was Crowley?  Did she exhibit any discernable injuries?  What incriminating statements, if any, did the accused make? The hotel valet might also prove to be an important witness.  Did he see Manziel force a woman into his car?  Was she pleading for help?  Finally, hotel surveillance footage, if any exists, could be useful. 

A Payoff?

Local news media in Dallas report that Manziel reached a financial settlement with Crowley.  It may or may not be true.  Such settlements are often kept secret.   But assuming it is true, it is probably inadmissible in a criminal trial.  Its prejudicial effect would outweigh the probative value.  Courts don’t like jurors to convict the accused because he chose to compensate someone who was genuinely harmed.

However, what if it was something more than that?  A payoff to buy the alleged victim’s silence and prevent Manziel from being prosecuted and convicted, for example?  Surely, Crowley would have signed what’s called a “non-disclosure” agreement promising not to speak about the case or the settlement.  It is a valid and enforceable contract with one exception: it will not insulate her from having to testify in the criminal case against Manziel.  It is against the law for a defendant to undertake a contract to obstruct justice.  Crowley would be still be forced to testify.  And Manziel could not later sue her for breach of contract.  Again, this assumes there is such an agreement incidental to a settlement.

Outta Luck

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, or so said the Roman philosopher Seneca.  Well, I don’t know about that.  Maybe part of it is true. Maybe “Johnny Football” seized the opportunity to influence a malleable witness with the great American dollar.  Maybe not.

All I know is that he seems to have completely skated on any serious criminal charges.  In my book, that makes him “Johnny Lucky.”  But with a professional football career in spectacular ruins, his luck may have finally run out.