Embroiled ex-Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in the weapons case against him and agreed to serve two years in prison for accidentally shooting himself at a Manhattan nightclub last fall.
The one-time Super Bowl star pleaded guilty this morning to one count of criminal possession of a weapon. Under the terms of the plea deal, Burress has agreed to serve two years in jail and two years of probation following his release.
The move is a shocking twist in a case that many had expected to become a high-profile trial. Burress has consistently rejected several plea deals that would have required he spend time behind bars, his lawyer has said.
Today's guilty plea came moments after Burress, dressed in a dark blue suit, pleaded "not guilty" in a soft voice when the indictment was read in court. Moments later, the plea was withdrawn after a prosecutor publicly offered a two-year plea deal.
Burress admitted in court -- his first appearance before a judge since his indictment by a grand jury two weeks ago -- to carrying a loaded gun into the Latin Quarter nightclub in Midtown last November. The gun slipped, causing the football player to shoot himself in the thigh.
His attorney, Benjamin Brafman, said in court that the 32-year-old Burress was thinking of his family in taking the plea, although he questioned the recommended prison sentence.
"This was not an intentional criminal act,'' Brafman said. "In my judgment, a two-year prison sentence is a very severe punishment.''
Assistant District Attorney Mark Dwyer said it is standard policy to request a two-year sentence as part of a plea bargain on such serious charges.
Some critics thought Burress would get preferential treatment because of his celebrity status; today's plea deal answers those concerns.
Burress did not speak to reporters and left while his attorney addressed the media outside the courthouse.
Brafman called the case "a perfect example about how bad judgment can have very serious consequences'' and said Burress was treated more harshly because he is a celebrity.
"If Plaxico Burress were not a high-profile individual, there never would be a case,'' he said. "If he were just John Q Public he could have walked out of the club and he never would have been arrested.''
"The hope is that after Mr. Burress serves what will be 20 months in prison he will be able to resume his professional football career," Brafman added.
Judge Melkonian accepted the guilty plea. Burress will remain free until sentencing, which is scheduled for Sept. 22. Burress would make a statement at his sentencing, and would try to begin serving his sentence immediately, Brafman said. He did not know where Burress would serve his time.
Burress was indicted earlier this month on one count of reckless endangerment and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon. He would've faced a minimum prison sentence of 3 1/2 years if convicted.
Plaxico caught the game-winning touchdown for the New York Giants in the 2008 Super Bowl. He became a free agent after the team released him on April 3, but his former teammates were saddened by the news.
"He is a friend of mine, a great teammate. We won a championship with him. I am saddened by the news -- two years,'' quarterback Eli Manning said. "Again, I just wish the best for him and his family and try to support him any way we can.''
Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Tuck said his heart sank when he learned of the plea.
"Today when I heard the news, my heart went out to him and his family, and obviously I'm just hoping that everything turns out all right in the end,'' Tuck said.
Burress will remain a free agent for quite some time as a result of his plea deal -- but if the NFL's quick re-embrace of Michael Vick, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles last week, is any indication, Burress may have a better shot at getting back on the field as a repentant ex-jail bird than as a cocky player who refused to do any time on principle.
While some teams had expressed interest in the formidable wide receiver, most were hesitant to ink any deal, considering the threat of a year-long suspension from Goodell and charges that carried a combined maximum mandatory sentence of eight years.
The football star and former teammate Antonio Pierce were together on Nov. 29 when a gun tucked into Burress' waistband slipped down his leg and fired, shooting him in the right thigh. The bullet narrowly missed a nightclub security guard who was standing inches away, prosecutors said, lodged in the floor and was recovered by a bartender.
The gun was not licensed in New York or in New Jersey, where Burress lived, prosecutors said. His license to carry a concealed weapon in the state of Florida had expired in May 2008.
Prosecutors said Pierce , the Giants' starting middle linebacker, drove Burress to a hospital, then took the gun to his own home in New Jersey where it was later delivered to Burress' home.
He escaped indictment by a grand jury. Pierce, who was accused of hiding the weapon after the shooting, got the leniency that Burress sought by asking the grand jury to weigh his intentions more heavily than his actions.