On Friday, Trevor Mbakwe got lucky.
This week, Mbakwe was ordered to Florida for a hearing on a July DUI arrest in Minnetonka, Minn., a possible violation of the probation he was serving for a felony assault charge he pleaded guilty to in 2009. Until 2011, when Mbakwe violated a restraining order by writing on an ex-girlfriend's Facebook wall, he had been serving a much less-harsh pretrial diversion program. The Facebook message violated that program, kicking him back into the probation process, and when he was caught driving while intoxicated in July, he faced the possibility -- even the likelihood -- of jail time.
Instead, during Friday's hearing, Mbakwe avoided the prospect of jail time. Instead, he reached a settlement with his 2009 victim and received a two-year extension to his probation, among other penalties. ESPN.com's Myron Medcalf has the statement from Miami-Dade state's attorney spokesman Ed Griffith:
"Judge Fernandez determined that the defendant (Trevor Mbakwe) was not a danger to the community, thus Judge Fernandez had the discretion to extend probation which he did, by two years. He did modify it to reporting probation instead of non-reporting probation, and ordered the defendant to perform 20 hours of community service a month and attend AA meetings three times a week," Griffith said via email.
"The victim's civil attorney was present and he and the criminal defense attorney knocked out a confidential civil settlement prior to the hearing. They refused to let any prosecutor or the criminal court know what the terms of that agreement actually were.
"The Judge was asked (by the victim's attorney) to extend probation to 4 years with early termination upon satisfaction of the civil settlement. The Judge decided to [give] him 2 years' probation and did not make the confidential civil settlement part of the criminal court probation. The judge indicated that if the defendant does not comply with the civil settlement, then the victim's attorney should go to civil court to enforce the settlement, not the criminal courts."
The conditions of Mbakwe's settlement with the victim are especially interesting. Per the Star Tribune's Amanda Rayno, "restitution for the victim’s treatment of a broken cheekbone was set to a sliding scale that will increase if Mbakwe gets drafted to play in the NBA." That is at least in part why the victim was reportedly more interested in restitution than jail time, even if Judge Fernandez didn't agree.
Also worth noting was Fernandez's warning to Mbakwe, per the Star Tribune:
"You're not a cat; you don't have nine lives. You're going to do something and it's going to be the end of any chances you have. This may be it; this may be your last chance," Fernandez told Mbakwe at the hearing.
That strikes me as exactly right. Beyond the initial felony assault of a woman -- which is beyond the pale no matter how you look at it -- a particularly generous person could make an argument that Mbakwe's mistakes since then have been forgivable. By all accounts, the 2011 Facebook message that violated his restraining order was less threatening than naive. A DUI charge is less forgivable, of course, but Mbakwe blew a .12 -- just a few ticks over the legal limit. In and of themselves -- and that is a crucial distinction -- these are basically dumb mistakes. They are not the work of a bald-faced criminal mastermind.
But of course they didn't happen in a vacuum. They were committed while Mbakwe was attempting to rehabilitate his criminal and civil record following a guilty plea to felony assault. They are the kinds of mistakes you absolutely cannot make in the course of that process. They are a symptom of horrendous decision-making skills. Judge Fernandez is right. At some point, you run out of lives.
Another question presented by Friday's hearing -- and by the widespread attention it received -- is whether Minnesota will see fit to enact any sort of additional punishment of its own. During its media day last week, the Golden Gophers told ESPN.com through a source Mbakwe had been punished "internally," and he would not be forced to sit any of the team's 2012-13 games as a result.
Since we don't know what that internal punishment was, by its very nature it seems lenient. It smacks of a program's willingness to overlook its former All-Big Ten senior's repeated mistakes in favor of getting him on the court as quickly as possible. Minnesota wants to move on, almost as much as Mbakwe does. Whether it can, or should be able to, is another matter entirely.