The Prosecutors Went Too Far : But so did Washington Mayor Barry, who should exit public life

A federal jury's conviction of Marion Barry on a single cocaine count--but not on more serious charges--probably won't end the Washington mayor's political career. Too bad. It's not a career that should be continued.

Federal prosecutors cannot ignore suspicions of drug use by prominent people, particularly as this nation grapples with a devastating drug problem. If this nation is to overcome the scourge of drugs, all Americans must be held equally accountable. But in Barry's case, the government simply overreached when it set up the circumstances of the crime. The FBI snared Barry in a hotel room using his former girlfriend as the bait. The sting created an opportunity for Barry to succumb to temptation. Fair enough--sting operations can prove critical in high-profile cases. But they also can put off jurors who question such methods of gathering evidence. That's what happened in Barry's case.

The federal government's zeal also raised additional questions, given this nation's sad history of disparate legal treatment of blacks and whites. Barry--arrogant, taunting and a sitting mayor--certainly made a big target, but many black Americans openly doubt the government would have gone to such great lengths to pursue a powerful white man.

Putting Barry on trial again would simply exacerbate tensions in a city already polarized along racial and class lines. By the same token, Barry's days in public office should be numbered. He has ruled out a bid for a fourth term as mayor, but he may try for the City Council. He must not do that. A victory would further polarize the city.

As for Barry's punishment, he should receive the maximum sentence--a $100,000 fine and a year in jail. First offenders rarely do jail time on misdemeanor convictions. But Barry is no typical first-timer. The maximum penalty would send a strong warning to his remaining admirers--and reassure our foreign allies--that the U.S. government does not tolerate casual drug consumption by any American.

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