James Gill: Nagin’s attitude might make time seem longer

What Ray Nagin will do, if he is wise for once, is arrange a long conversation with a bunch of ex-cons.

That would do him much more good than listening to supporters who tell him he is the innocent victim of what one termed a “new-age lynching.” If he reports to the pen in September believing that nonsense, his time inside will seem even longer. It will feel like serving the sentence that federal guidelines called for, rather than the 10 years Judge Ginger Berrigan kindly gave him.

Ten years is hard enough to bear even for an inmate who is resigned to his fate and maybe even remorseful. But alumni of corrections institutions say the days pass extra slowly for the inmate who continues to seethe over imaginary injustices.

There is even a term for it among jailbirds in Britain, as one of them, the former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken who was convicted some years ago of perjury, reported in a newspaper article just last week. Apparently prisoners who feel hard done by are said to do “double Richard,” because they make life so hard for themselves.

If you want to know why they call prison time Richard, here’s the dope. In rhyming slang time is bird, short for bird lime. Bird in turn rhymes with Richard the Third. Lop off the ordinal number, and it all makes sense. Right?

Why slang arbiters preferred Richard to other kings with two namesake predecessors is impossible to say. But call it double George or double Henry, and it’s still a mug’s game. Nagin seems inclined to play it. Indeed, he maintains his innocence so stridently that he may even believe that he didn’t deserve to be the only New Orleans mayor ever convicted of corruption.

If a defendant is going to come over contrite, it is generally at sentencing. But Nagin said nothing to invite the slack that Berrigan cut him. “We stand by the memorandums and testimonies that have been presented,” he said in court. “I’m trusting God is going to work all this out.”

God, having already sent him the most sympathetic judge in the Eastern District, must wonder what more Nagin wants.

Later that day, in a television interview, Nagin continued to maintain he had done nothing wrong, and played the martyr. “I’ve been targeted, smeared, tarnished and for some reason some of the stances that I took after Katrina didn’t sit well with some very powerful people. So now I’m paying the price for that.”

According to a website set up to raise money for an appeal, Nagin is “unwavering that he was never involved in any bribery schemes,” and “regrets mistakes in allowing himself to be misunderstood and not preventing infectors from getting close to his family.” It is unlikely that anyone who followed his trial will be reaching for a credit card, however. The jury did not need to deliberate long before convicting him on 20 of 21 counts.

Nagin may have upset some very powerful people, but it is for ripping off the powerless that he is paying the price. Whether he believes himself to be the victim of sinister forces is of no consequence; veterans of the criminal justice system give his appeal no chance, even if the online appeal should raise more cash than seems likely.

Indeed, it is the government that may have the better chance of a successful appeal. If the U.S. solicitor general should decide to challenge the sentence Berrigan imposed as too lenient, Nagin’s fate would wind up in the hands of the appeals court in New Orleans, which is not exactly known for liberal sentiments. Berrigan, a former head of the ACLU in Louisiana, is the trial judge least in tune with the appeals court’s concept of justice.

The most likely outcome, however, is that the sentence stands, for Nagin, whatever the guidelines says, can hardly be said to have gotten off lightly. He will have to do 85 percent of his sentence, so he will be approaching 67 before he is released. He is ruined financially, and will probably not live long enough to pay the more than $500,000 he owes for restitution and taxes.

Clinging on to the delusion that he is innocent may be the only way he could make his situation less tolerable.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.