The recent disturbing examples of overzealous and potentially racist law enforcement and the resulting protests in the name of equality have, once again, thrust America’s criminal justice system into the spotlight, exposing biases and impartiality inherent throughout civil institutions. The current focus has been on police misconduct against black and brown people in America, yet, it would be irresponsible to assume the evident biases begin and end with police. In fact, often it continues further up the chain to prosecutors and even judges who have often imposed disproportionate sentencing against minorities for centuries.
A case that bears mention was the extreme sentencing of Indian American white-collar criminal Nikesh Patel and the prosecutor with an alleged history of racial misconduct who helped put him away.
Patel was arrested and pleaded guilty to five counts of loan fraud in 2016 through his nonbank lender First Farmers Financial LLC. As part of his agreement, Patel volunteered to assist prosecutors by laying out the intricacies of his fraud, identifying where the money went and held presentations to federal investigators explaining how schemes like his can be identified.
He was wrong and committed a crime. Still, he worked to recoup millions of dollars for his victims and was the primary source for the breaking down and exposing the extent of his crimes. Patel also helped impeach his co-conspirators, and, as part of his agreement to cooperate, he assisted a U.S Attorney by agreeing to wear a wire as part of a covert investigation not associated with his own case, “of a high-level target,” within Florida’s political establishment.
His co-conspirator, Timothy Fisher worked closely with Patel throughout their “First Farmer” scam. Much of the information Patel provided prosecutors was used in the case against Fisher. But, when the gavel struck and punishment was imposed, Fisher was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Patel 25. The courts found it justifiable to impose a sentence 2.5X longer on Patel, despite being part of a “two-man criminal enterprise.”
On the day of his sentencing, after months of cooperation, Patel was arrested on the tarmac in Kissimmee, Florida attempting to board a chartered jet to Ecuador. According to Patel, he was acting on the advice of his immigration attorney by seeking lawful asylum due to his belief that race played a part in his sentence. It was his attempt to flee that, according to prosecutors, justified his lengthy prison sentence.
One of the most disturbing examples of bias and discrimination came from the mouth of U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras at Patel’s final sentencing. “His (U.S.) citizenship was the gift of his birth, yet he’s so quick to throw it away because he doesn’t want to face the piper,” Kocoras said.
Patel was born in America. He is an American citizen and the United States is the only country he has ever known, and yet Judge Kocoras, who has a concerning record, found it appropriate to flaunt Patel’s citizenship as if it were a gift and not a right – that is what he was worried about. The judge’s words were hard for a brown man to hear; that he, more so than others, should feel grateful for being an American.
In a time where the President of the United States tells members of congress to “go back where you came from,” it would seem that a highly unusual and loaded statement like that, moments before the imposition of a disparate sentence on a man that is 15 years longer than his white partner in crime, is telling.
The man who prosecuted Nikesh Patel was Patrick J. King, Jr. In the late 90’s, King was chastised in the media for his history of prosecutorial misconduct and abuse, and was charged with framing a defendant, Rolando Cruz. King was accused of ignoring exculpatory evidence to push for Cruz’s conviction. Cruz was sentenced to death before he appealed and was granted his freedom.
Patel cooperated with authorities. He fessed up to his crimes, explained how they were conducted, worked to repay his victims and wore a wire in an undercover operation. He did try to flee and should be justly punished for that. But when the prosecutor has a past with echoes of racism or over zealousness, and the judge admonishes you for disrespecting your “gift” of citizenship while letting your white co-conspirator off easy, red flags need to be raised. No one is arguing that Patel is an innocent man, he is not. When a system is so corrupt and racist that protests fill the streets of every major city, maybe it is time we held all of those in power accountable, and not let the ones who weren’t caught on video so easily slide.
Perhaps it is notable that Patel had been associated with raising funds for President Trump and Senator Marco Rubio.
From racist officers on the street, to corrupt prosecutors cutting deals with law-school buddies, and, like in this case, prejudiced judges imposing unreasonably harsher sentences upon people of color, it seems that no matter where you look, the scent of racism and impartiality still exists.