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This is sad.

LOS ANGELES Apr 19, 2005 — A Caltech graduate student convicted of helping to firebomb scores of sport utility vehicles was sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison and ordered to pay $3.5 million in restitution.

A federal judge Monday rejected William Jensen Cottrell's plea for leniency.

"There's no way I'd ever be involved in anything like this again," Cottrell said. "I won't ever even jaywalk again."

However, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner said Cottrell had engaged in domestic terrorism and "we're very, very lucky" that no one was killed in the arson attacks.

Cottrell, 24, was convicted in November of conspiracy to commit arson and seven counts of arson for an August 2003 vandalism spree that damaged and destroyed about 125 SUVs at dealerships and homes in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles.


The judge said he felt sorry for Cottrell, a doctoral candidate in the physics department at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, but he had only himself to blame.

"What a talent to have wasted," Klausner said.

Vandals used spray-paint to deface the vehicles with slogans such as "Fat, Lazy Americans," "polluter" and "ELF," for Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group.

Prosecutors estimated the total damage at $2.3 million.

Defense lawyers argued that Cottrell had agreed with two friends to spray-paint vehicles, but was surprised when they began to hurl Molotov cocktails.

Federal prosecutors have identified former Caltech students Tyler Johnson and Michie Oe as "fugitive co-conspirators" in the case. It is believed that both have fled the country.

Eight years seems unjustly excessive. Arguably, his actions did create some small risk that someone might be injured or killed, but certainly no more so than when someone drives drunk, and no one gets sentenced to eight years for that, especially when they don't actually hurt or kill anyone.

I know conservatives are pointing to the fact that he caused a couple million dollars worth of damage. But come on. For one thing, I'm guessing the dealerships had insurance, though I don't know for sure. But even if they didn't, $2.3 million doesn't justify eight years in prison. (How much prison time did Ken Lay get, again?)

On top of this, Cottrell has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. This fact, coupled with the relative innocuousness of the crime, makes it a travesty to treat this case as an instance of terrorism.

Environmentalists had formed groups to provide assistance to Cottrell, but these groups withdrew their support when he testified that Johnson and Oe were the ones who had started the fires, calling him an "informant." This too seems a bit harsh, given the fact that Johnson and Oe have fled the country and are unlikely to be prosecuted as a result of Cottrell's testimony.

A sad story any way you look at it.

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