Ex-OSU football star Maurice Clarett listens to attorney Nick Mango before pleading guilty in court.
MATT SULLIVAN / REUTERS Enlarge
COLUMBUS - Maurice Clarett yesterday pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and weapons charges in exchange for a sentence that could see his release from prison in as soon as 3 1/2 years.
In a surprise move just before the first trial was set to begin, the former Ohio State University star pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a New Year's Day incident involving two people behind a Columbus bar and an Aug. 9 police chase that ended with the discovery of four loaded guns in his vehicle.
"I'd like to apologize for my behavior, and I accept the time that's given to me," Clarett, 22, told Judge David W. Fais in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
Just before sentence was imposed, the prosecution revealed that one of the four loaded guns found in the sport utility vehicle on Aug. 9 is believed to be the gun used in the New Year's Day robbery.
Judge Fais sentenced Clarett to 7 1/2 years in prison - 6 years for a single count of aggravated robbery and an accompanying gun specification, and 18 months for a single count of illegally carrying a concealed firearm stemming from the highway chase. Prosecutors said they would not oppose his release when he becomes eligible for parole after 3 1/2 years.
Prior to his second arrest, Clarett rejected a plea offer in the robbery case that would have led to his release after 18 months.
The two robbery victims agreed to the deal. Through a county victims' advocate, one of them, who is a psychiatric social worker, urged Clarett to use his time in prison to help others.
"You can have a positive impact, and I hope you can make a turn in that direction," his statement read.
Michael Hoague, one of Clarett's attorneys, said the man who ran the winning touchdown that handed the Buckeyes the 2002 national championship over the Miami Hurricanes hopes to be sent to a prison where he can continue to pursue his dream of someday playing professional ball.
"There are institutions in Ohio that actually have opportunities to work out and train in football and other athletics, and he's hoping to do that to stay in shape and keep focused on that," Mr. Hoague said.
Following his standout freshman performance, Clarett was suspended in 2003 for receiving improper benefits. He attempted to prematurely enter the NFL draft, but the move was blocked by the courts.
He was drafted in 2005 by the Denver Broncos, but was cut from the team without playing a professional game. More recently, he had agreed to play for the Mahoning Valley HitMen, a fledgling professional arena football team playing just outside his hometown of Youngstown.
"Maurice Clarett has helped us sell season tickets, and we've gotten national and local press we couldn't have hoped for otherwise," said Jim Terry, the HitMen's head coach. "He's done nothing but help our organization, no matter what he's done to himself."
He said Clarett has a spot with the HitMen after he is released from prison.
A handcuffed and shackled Clarett, who's grown a full beard while behind bars, wore a broad smile as he entered the courtroom, often looking behind him at his mother, girlfriend, and 2-month-old daughter.
The baby remained silent until a prosecutor began to describe how Clarett approached the couple in the alley behind the Opium Lounge in downtown Columbus, displayed the handgun tucked into his pants' waistband, and demanded what they had in their pockets. The baby then let out a cry.
He got away with just a cell phone.
Assistant Prosecutor Tim Mitchell said Clarett did not receive special treatment.
"As robberies go, it wasn't as bad as some of them," he said. "He had no prior record except for the minor OSU things some years ago. It just seemed like something that seemed within the realm of reason."
He said the outcome would have been different if Clarett had pulled the gun that was tucked into his pants that early morning behind the bar.
"The plea would not have been like this if he had taken that gun out," he said.
Mr. Hoague said there was never any threat to witnesses from the robbery case the early morning that police launched the highway chase a few blocks from the home of one of the victims. He said Clarett had simply been transporting personal items, including the guns, from his mother's Youngstown home to his home in Columbus when he made the illegal U-turn.
Police tried without success to subdue him with a stun gun, only to discover he was wearing a bullet-resistant vest.
"If you travel in his neighborhood in Youngstown, you see a lot of people for whatever reason wearing their tank tops with their flak vests," Mr. Hoague said. "It's a way of life with the people that he grew up with."
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