WHITE PLAINS, New York - Marion Jones said she was scared. She said she was sorry. With a catch in her voice, she said her young sons needed her.
"I ask you to be as merciful as a human being can be," she implored the judge.
To no avail.
The former Olympic track gold medallist was sentenced to six months in prison Friday for lying to investigators about using performance-enhancing drugs and her role in a cheque-fraud scam.
And so ended a long fall from grace for the one-time fastest woman on earth.
She leaned over the courtroom railing and softly cried into her husband's shoulder.
Jones' speed, along with a dazzling smile, pleasant personality and unmatched style, made her an international superstar even before she won five medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The medals and her riches are gone now, and she has been "put through humiliation with great fanfare," said U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas, who sentenced her.
He said Jones damaged two federal investigations with lies that came years apart, so "I don't think the criminal conduct can be written off as a momentary lapse of judgment or a one-time mistake, but instead a repetition of an attempt to break the law."
The cheque -fraud scheme was a major crime and the wide use of steroids "affects the integrity of athletic competition," he said. If Jones had told the truth from the start, he said, it would have been a great help to the ongoing BALCO investigation.
Later Friday, the judge sentenced Jones' former coach, Olympic champion Steve Riddick, to five years and three months in prison for his role in the cheque-fraud scam. Riddick also was given three years' probation and must pay back US$375,000.
Riddick's lawyer, Bryan Hoss, said Riddick would appeal.
Jones pleaded with the judge not to separate her from her sons "even for a short period of time," saying she was still nursing the younger one. Although she is happily married now to Olympic sprinter Obadele Thompson, she said she knew from experience the problems of bringing up children in a one-parent household.
Karas acknowledged the children were victims, but said criminals "have to realize the consequences of their actions on others."
"We wouldn't be here today talking about the possibility of incarceration if Ms. Jones-Thompson had told the truth," he said.
A prison sentence, he said, might make others "think twice before lying. It might make them realize that no one is above the obligation to tell the truth."
The judge said he stayed within the six-month maximum suggested by prosecutors because of Jones' sons, her eventual acceptance of responsibility and the good she "can do to debunk the worldwide lie" perpetrated by performance-enhancing drugs.
He said 400 hours of community service in each of the two years following her release would "take advantage of Ms. Jones-Thompson's eloquence, strength and her ability to work with kids." He suggested she teach children that "it's wrong to cheat and to lie about the cheating."
Karas sentenced Jones to six months on the steroids case and two months on the cheque fraud case but said the sentences could be served at the same time. He imposed no fine, he said, because Jones can't afford to pay one.
After long denying she ever had used performance-enhancing drugs, Jones admitted last October she lied to federal investigators in November 2003, acknowledging she took the designer steroid "the clear" from September 2000 to July 2001. "The clear" has been linked to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, the lab at the centre of the steroids scandal in professional sports.
She also admitted lying about her knowledge of the involvement of Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery, the father of her older son, in a scheme to cash millions of dollars worth of stolen or forged cheques. Montgomery and several others have been convicted in that scam.
Karas said he was still not sure Jones was telling the truth when she said she was unaware she had been taking steroids until she stopped. An athlete of her calibre knows "the razor-thin difference" between being good and being great, and she would have noticed right away, he suggested.
The use of performance-enhancing drugs "sends all the wrong messages to all who follow the athlete's every move," Karas said. "Athletes in society have an elevated status. They entertain, they inspire and perhaps most important they serve as role models."
BALCO founder Victor Conte, who served four months in prison after pleading guilty to operating a steroids distribution ring, said Jones "did make some very poor choices, and she does deserve serious consequences. I certainly don't condone her repeated lies."
USA Track & Field president Bill Roe and CEO Craig Masback called the Jones saga "a vivid morality play that graphically illustrates the wages of cheating in any facet of life, on or off the track."
Jones expressed an interest in beginning her sentence as soon as possible. Karas gave her until March 11 to surrender. Her lawyers asked that she be sent to a prison near her Austin, Texas, home.
"I'm very disappointed today," Jones told reporters outside court. "But as I stood in front of all of you for years in victory, I stand in front of you today. I stand for what is right. I respect the judge's order and I truly hope that people will learn from my mistakes."
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