Wal-Mart Embezzelment Sentence too light?

It’s not too often an appellate court finds a criminal sentence too light. Usually, the appeals courts focus on technicalities of procedure and evidence, and occasionally find a sentence too harsh. But The 8th Circuit United States Court of Appeals found the sentence handed out to ex-Wal-Mart executive Thomas Coughlin too lenient.

Coughlin had gotten a sentence of home detention and probation even though Wal-Mart estimated the loss he caused them at $500,000. Coughlin pled guilty and admitted to embezzling cash, gift cards and merchandise from Wal-Mart stores. He had worked there for 28 years as a protege of founder, Sam Walton, and was the number two executive at Wal-Mart before he retired in 2005.

For his wire fraud and tax evasion charges, Coughlin was facing up to 28 years in prison and fines of $1.3 million. But the U.S. District Judge gave Coughlin only 27 months of home detention and 33 months of probation with a fine of $50,000 and $400,000 of restitution to repay Wal-Mart.

The appeals court found Coughlin’s sentence did not justify such a departure from the norm, departing downward eight levels in the sentencing guidelines. The dissenting appellate judge, however, agreed with the sentencing district judge that Coughlin suffered from extraordinary health problems, including heart failure, obesity, diabetes, and gout, which might not receive adequate treatment in prison.

The appellate decision directed the sentencing judge to give Coughlin another sentence, but the appellate decision was a split decision by a small panel of judges, so Coughlin could now seek a rehearing before the full nine-judge panel or the full Circuit Court to ask reinstatement of his original sentence.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart is still trying to break two retirement contracts with Coughlin, one for $12 million and the other for $15 million. Apparently, these were not sweet enough to deter Coughlin from dipping further into the Wal-Mart honey pot.

I’m sure my clients would join me in my amazement that someone with those kind of resources would feel the need to embezzle $500,000 when he expected to receive $28 million from that same source. This light sentence also shows that justice is not always equal, which further emphasizes the need for the best criminal defense possible for people who don’t fall into the category of the ultra wealthy.

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