A critically acclaimed television drama, Breaking Bad, tells the story of a high school chemistry teacher who turns to a life of crime: making and selling methamphetamine. The show’s premise suggests that criminals and drug dealers come from all walks of life.

That apparently includes the legal profession. Last night brought word of a promising young law student who just got sentenced to four years in federal prison after pleading guilty to selling meth. Better call Saul?

And this student didn’t turn to drug dealing because he was terrified about his post-graduation employment prospects. They were probably fairly bright, since he had an above-average GPA at a so-called top 14 or “T14″ law school….

The story, by Ann E. Marimow for Washington Post, is being shared widely over Facebook and Twitter — perhaps as a cautionary tale. It begins:

He was Phi Beta Kappa at Georgetown, a top economics student and an award-winning debater. He won a scholarship to study at the University of California, Berkeley and returned to Washington for law school, dazzling professors and helping inmates at the D.C. jail.

But Marc Gersen was leading a second, secret life that his teachers and old friends knew nothing about. He was selling methamphetamine through a sophisticated social-networking scheme, putting a future of great promise at risk.

Gersen, 31, was sentenced in federal court Thursday to four years in prison after pleading guilty to selling wholesale quantities of methamphetamine. But the punishment for his role in a drug ring that has led to the prosecution of at least three other people will last much longer for a young man who once dreamed of becoming a public defender.

Talk about a dream deferred. After serving his prison sentence, Gersen would have to finish his legal studies, pass the bar exam, and then convince a state bar to admit him despite his criminal past.

Gersen has been locked up in the D.C. jail since his arrest [in December 2011] outside a boutique hotel in Northwest Washington. At the time, he was a Georgetown second-year law student with a 3.48 grade-point average and an apartment in Dupont Circle. But he was also struggling with an addiction to the drug he was selling.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton’s most pressing question during the sentencing was how someone with so much opportunity could throw it all away.

“Somebody as intelligent as you are had to have known,” Walton said of the dangers of the highly addictive drug. “It’s just perplexing.”

And shocking. And sad. A life of great promise, majorly derailed.

(I would not go so far as to say Gersen’s life is “ruined.” He’ll still be a young man after serving his four years. Bank robber turned jailhouse lawyer Shon Hopwood, whom we’ve written about before, served a ten-year sentence and still managed to turn his life around. Maybe Gersen can also land a book deal (affiliate link) post-prison?)

Two conflicting portraits of Gersen emerge in court documents. Letters to the judge from former classmates, law school officials, family and a campus rabbi describe Gersen’s deep passion for the law and social justice.

“His law school performance — remarkable under any circumstances — is truly incredible given the other things going on in his life,” wrote Gersen’s law professor, Louis Michael Seidman, who sat with Gersen’s mother in the courtroom Thursday. “The short of it is that Marc is an extraordinary young man who has made some extraordinary mistakes.”

Professor Seidman might want to give up on the Constitution, but he doesn’t want to give up on his former student. The professor’s willingness to go to bat for an ex-student in deep trouble strikes me as commendable. Professor Seidman told Judge Walton that Marc Gersen is teaching writing to fellow inmates, tutoring students seeking their GEDs, and reading books like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (affiliate link), to try and understand himself better.

At the same time, Gersen’s good deeds must be balanced against his crimes:

[An image of Gersen as a do-gooder] is hard to reconcile, prosecutors said, with the dealer who sold drugs not just to support his own addiction and who “bragged of his success in doing so.”

“What emerges from accounts of his fellow drug dealers, his customers and his own words, is of a drug dealer who believed that because of his intellectual ability, he was able to outwit law enforcement and avoid detection,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorneys Magdelena Acevedo and Patricia Stewart.

(Fun fact: Magdalena Acevedo is married to Gabe Acevedo, the noted e-discovery blogger.)

And this was not Gersen’s first brush with the law. He pleaded no contest to felony possession of ecstasy in California in 2009, and he was charged by San Francisco police with drug possession in 2010. In addition, according to court documents, when D.C. police searched the apartment he shared with his roommate and co-conspirator, Michael Talon, they found chemicals used to manufacture GHB (aka the “date rape” drug).

These are just highlights from the fascinating Post piece, which you should read in its entirety. It’s fairly sympathetic to Marc Gersen. One former Georgetown Law classmate of Gersen’s took issue with the article for that reason:

I thought the article was almost dishonestly positive. I don’t think most people would describe him as “brilliant.” Social awkwardness aside, he was sorta rude / obnoxious… often missed class… was not a good student. Odd that [Professor] Seidman is quoted in article; maybe he and Seidman became close. I thought he was a jackass to Seidman in 1L lecture. and [Professor] Randy Barnett also couldn’t stand him; Barnett is ultra uptight about starting class on time and not walking in late…. and Marc would stroll in 10 minutes late every single day. It became almost a comedic thing. Barnett would scold him every day and seemed genuinely angry.

I don’t have anything against Marc personally, and I don’t mean to kick him when he’s down. But these are my honest thoughts / observations. The Washington Post piece just [didn't seem like] an accurate portrait of Marc…. I mean, the guy really did not have his act together at all. In hindsight, this totally makes sense. The whole ‘such a surprise!’ tone of the article seemed off-base.

[I]t’s definitely strange, but on the other hand, if we had to pick a person in the section who was a meth dealer, we would have picked him….

So Gersen might not be “brilliant,” and he’s certainly no saint. But there’s a big difference between being late to class and being a federal felon. Critics of our nation’s drug laws would ask whether Gersen deserves to be punished so harshly.

On the other hand, it could be argued that he got off too easy. Here’s one opinion from a reader, responding to defenders of Gersen:

Wow. The rationalization going on here is mind-boggling. Addiction is a mental health problem that we don’t address well enough. Dealing is an exploitation of that mental health problem for profit. Might feel sympathy for him on the first, not for the second. Methinks that if the meth dealer had been an inner-city kid who turned to meth, and then to dealing, to escape the fact that he had few good options for success in life, rather than a pretty white boy who started using meth when he blew his dissertation and threw away every opportunity given him, he wouldn’t be getting off with a 4-year sentence, a comfy prison close to mommy and daddy, and a sympathetic article in the Washington Post.

I find myself torn about this story. On the one hand, I currently lean towards legalizing many drugs; on the other hand, if there is a drug that should be illegal, it’s probably meth. But regardless of one’s stance on drug legalization, I think we can agree it’s sad to see someone with so much promise do something that will ruin the next few years of his life (and that has harmed the lives of others as well — such as the other members of his conspiracy, who will be sentenced later this year, and any customers of his meth-dealing operation who might be struggling with addiction).

Readers, what are your thoughts on the case of the United States v. Marc Gersen?

P.S. Gavel bang: thanks to tipster “Boyburger,” as well as our various friends on Twitter.

Drugs are the downfall of a brilliant law student [Washington Post]


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