Can Being Too Fat Keep You Out of Prison?

Fat lives matter, is the argument one lawyer is making to keep his 273-pound client out of prison.

In the latest turn of a tax scheme case that has taken more than four years to prosecute, attorney Curtis Fallgatter in a court filing Monday wrote that it would be unjust to make his obese, 5-foot-9 client Stephen Donaldson Sr., 72, serve six years and four months in prison because his life expectancy is lower than the average man's. Such a term could be equivalent to 61 percent of the time Donaldson has left to live, according to Fallgatter.

A federal judge in Tampa last week sentenced Donaldson and conspirator Duane Crithfield, 70, whose weight was not disclosed, for peddling an offshore tax shelter scheme that wound up costing the Internal Revenue Service about $10 million, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The men, both from Florida, offered their fraudulent tax strategy, "Business Protection Plan," to doctors and medical practices as coverage for kidnappings and other situations.

Whether a judge will find Fallgatter’s unusual argument compelling remains to be seen. But there is research that supports his claim. The Lancet, a leading medical journal in Britain, in a study last year using data from nearly four million adults on four continents found that moderately overweight people lost on average about one year of life expectancy, but that mortality jumped among people with greater weight issues.

"Severely obese people lose about 10 years of life expectancy," said Emanuele Di Angelantonio of the University of Cambridge in Britain.

Researchers involved in the study believe it contradicts the “obesity paradox” that indicated that overweight people do not die sooner.

A separate study in 2014 by researchers from the National Cancer Institute pooling data from three countries found that adults with extreme obesity have an increased risk of an early death from cancer, diabetes, stroke, heart, kidney and liver diseases. Extreme obesity in particular could shorten life expectancy by up to 14 years, according to the study.

“Given our findings, it appears that class III obesity is increasing and may soon emerge as a major cause of early death in this and other countries worldwide,” said Patricia Hartge, a senior author of the institute’s division of cancer epidemiology and genetics.

Chief U.S. District Judge Stephen D. Merryday last year threw out the adjudicated pleas of Donaldson and Crithfield after defense attorneys downplayed the men’s criminal conduct and the losses the IRS incurred.

If the plea had stayed intact, the men would have faced no more than three years in prison.

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