Crime

A Biloxi doctor is about to be sentenced. Can letters save him from life behind bars?

Albert Diaz, a Biloxi obstetrician and gynecologist, is pictured during the 2017 holidays with his children, registered nurse Maria Diaz, left, patient care specialist Elena Broussard and plastic surgeon Michael Diaz. Family and friends rallied to support Diaz 
 when he was convicted in March, then imprisoned, for committing conspiracy and fraud.
Albert Diaz, a Biloxi obstetrician and gynecologist, is pictured during the 2017 holidays with his children, registered nurse Maria Diaz, left, patient care specialist Elena Broussard and plastic surgeon Michael Diaz. Family and friends rallied to support Diaz when he was convicted in March, then imprisoned, for committing conspiracy and fraud.

Coast doctor Albert Diaz does not deserve to die in prison, say friends and supporters who are organizing a support rally and letter-writing campaign ahead of his sentencing on federal conspiracy and drug charges.

Diaz, who is 78 years old, is scheduled to be sentenced at 1 p.m. June 7 in Hattiesburg before U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett. He faces six to 10 years in prison after a jury convicted him in March of 16 counts of conspiracy, fraud, illegal distribution of drugs and attempting to cover up his crimes — all part of a scheme to defraud TRICARE, a health-care program for the military.

As sentencing approaches, family, friends and supporters want to do what they can to help the beloved obstetrician and gynecologist.

Instead of the serious crimes he committed, they are focused on the thousands of babies he delivered, the young people he mentored and the lives he saved, as evidenced by testimonials on the Facebook page Support Dr. Albert Diaz, MD.

The page urges supporters to write letters to Starrett and says correspondence collected at the rally will be stamped and mailed.

His friend Charles M. "Tod" Holman Jr., a urologist, is writing a letter to Starrett and will speak at the rally. Holman hopes Starrett might consider house arrest for Diaz.

"The bottom line is, it's just such a tragedy," Holman said. "I just feel like, if the judge sentences him to an extended prison term without any possible option for early release or probation, starting at age 78, I think he would die in prison.

"I don't think he would ever get out."

Do letters matter?

Starrett's office confirms he has already received an unknown number of letters and plans to read them before sentencing.

“In federal court, frequently letters of support are submitted to the court," said Peter Barrett of Gulfport, a former assistant U.S. attorney who practices criminal defense. "I've had them not amount to very much and I've had them make a major difference in the court's decision.

“It's funny about judges: If you send them something, they're going to read it. They take it very seriously and they take their jobs very seriously.”

Barrett recently defended a young man convicted of a drug crime. The defendant's employer wrote a letter that U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. mentioned at sentencing. Guirola shaved about one year off the recommended minimum sentence, giving Barrett's client about seven years and two months to serve.

Guirola called the employer's letter "really quite impressive," saying it indicated a long prison sentence would serve neither the young man nor the public's best interest.

Letters can be particularly helpful in illuminating a young defendant's potential for rehabilitation. In Diaz's case, supporters are highlighting a lifetime of good works that preceded his crimes.

Diaz testified that he did not profit from the conspiracy that defrauded TRICARE, the military health insurance program. At the urging of a pharmaceutical salesman he had known for years, Diaz prescribed compounded medications, some containing the anesthetic ketamine, for patients he had never seen.

"I'm obviously overwhelmed by the amount of community support for this man," said his attorney, John Colette, who is collecting letters for the judge. "He's helped many, many people."

Still, letters carry only so much weight.

"The main thing I would consider was what the defendant had done and the totality of the circumstances," retired U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering Sr. said. "Every judge approaches sentencing a little bit different.”

“Judges don't sentence in a vacuum, so you try to figure out motive and the totality of the circumstances. Letters could paint a picture of an individual, but you're still going to have to consider what the defendant was convicted of.”

Quality over quantity

The Internet is filled with suggestions on how to write a letter to a federal judge.

It is a mistake to think a letter will sway a judge just because a senator, governor or other prominent person wrote it, said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi and a former assistant U.S. attorney.

He also said quality is more important than quantity.

“The letters that make the biggest difference come from people who know the defendants well and can share specific incidences of behavior that give the judge a sense of who the person is and why a lengthy sentence may not be necessary in a particular case," Johnson said.

"Sometimes, people think if they have 60 letters, it will be overwhelming to a judge and make a difference. I advise my clients that I'd rather have six or eight substantive letters from people who know them well than superficial letters that don't reveal anything about the character of my client.

"The danger always is that the judge may take offense if he or she feels that the actions of supporters go too far."

He suspects the rally Diaz's supporters plan will mean more to the doctor than to the judge.

The rally will include a fish fry and an open microphone for supporters who want to share stories about the doctor.

"I suspect that a show of generic support by a significant group of people would not have significant influence on the federal judges I know.” Johnson said. “Sometimes, those efforts are directed more at the person being sentenced as a show of support and admiration than they are attempts to affect the judge.”

“Sometimes people want those who are facing incarceration and the end of their careers, or other negative outcomes, to know that this isn't the end of relationships that they enjoy with their friends and family and people are standing by them as they suffer difficult times.”

Diaz's family and friends turned out in force for a March bond hearing in Gulfport. But a magistrate judge found the law was not on Diaz's side and he should remain behind bars until sentencing.

If the feelings of friends and supporters are any indication of what their letters will say, the judge's decision on a prison sentence for Diaz could be a difficult.

“What should a judge do if they believe an otherwise good and decent person is guilty of an isolated lapse in judgment?" asked Johnson, who was speaking generally, not about the Diaz case. "I think that's the question judges grapple with every day.

"If you have an evil and dangerous person standing before you, sentencing isn't hard. Sentencing is hard when you have a person standing before you who is otherwise a good and virtuous person."

Anita Lee can be reached at 228-896-2331or @CAnitaLee1
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