The sentencing order had the terms spelled out in stark black and white: 12 to 18 months in prison.
Douglas County District Judge J. Michael Coffey held up the order for Benny “B.J.” Valentine — the former college basketball player and Omaha Central standout sitting at the defense table — after he was convicted of felony attempted delivery of marijuana.
“Ask your attorney. ... This is not an order of probation, is it?” Coffey said.
“It is not, your honor,” said Valentine's lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Rob Marcuzzo.
But Valentine, 25, went from prison to probation after an unlikely court official stood up for him.
Typically, probation officers are the silent players at a sentencing, limiting their recommendations to written reports to the judge.
However, Forrest Roper was in a unique position Friday as both a state probation officer and Valentine's former youth football coach. After Coffey called on him, Roper's message to the judge was mostly a lecture to Valentine.
“I don't go to bat for just anyone,” Roper told the judge. “Benny has to grow up. Whether he wants to grow up in the penitentiary system or in the real world, that's on him.”
All involved — Roper, Marcuzzo and Coffey — cited the tools Valentine has at his disposal. Supportive parents. Smarts, including a college business degree. A host of friends and a community of coaches like Roper who know Valentine's potential. Roper said he first coached Valentine when he was 7 or 8.
Roper asked the judge to put Valentine on probation and order him into a substance abuse treatment program for his marijuana use.
The punishment hovering over Valentine will motivate him, Roper said. If he violates any probation terms, he faces the original maximum sentence: up to five years in prison.
“Give him as much rope as the Mississippi River is long,” Roper said.
It wasn't the first time sports, or the support of the sports community, has helped spare Valentine from prison.
Valentine was convicted of two felonies in 2005. One involved the possession of a gun. In a separate incident, prosecutors say, the then-18-year-old was an accessory to a carjacking. Valentine had faced up to 10 years in prison, but a judge sentenced him to 60 days in jail and three years of probation.
At that sentencing, Valentine's attorney had pleaded with the judge for probation so that Valentine could retain a scholarship to Texas Tech to play basketball for then-coach Bob Knight. Valentine stayed there for a year before finishing out his college career, and earning a business degree, at Eastern Washington University.
With his smarts and affable nature, Marcuzzo said, Valentine needs to choose better in terms of his peers.
Valentine, who works as a car detailer, is not and never has been a drug dealer, Marcuzzo said. After Omaha police found about 4 ounces of marijuana during a traffic stop July 31, Valentine told officers he sold small amounts of marijuana to his friends so he could keep “some of the weed for free,” Marcuzzo said.
Valentine also had been charged with being a felon in possession of a weapon for an April incident in which officers found a gun in a car. However, the gun belonged to one of Valentine's passengers, and prosecutors dropped that charge, Marcuzzo said.
Valentine declined to comment for this article.
As he left court, he turned to his former coach and gripped him in a handshake and half hug.
“It's easy to go left, but it's hard to be right,” Roper told him. “Do it the right way.”
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