Caltech student’s ‘04 arson convictions are overturned

A Caltech graduate student convicted five years ago of conspiracy and arson for vandalizing 125 SUVs has had his arson convictions overturned and his sentence vacated by a federal appeals court.

William Cottrell, 29, should have been allowed to present evidence during his 2004 trial that his suffering from Asperger’s syndrome prevented him from forming the specific intent to commit the arson attacks, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an amended opinion this week.

Cottrell’s conspiracy conviction was upheld, but the 100-month prison sentence imposed on him for all of the offenses was vacated.


It’s unclear whether the ruling means that Cottrell -- who has already served about two-thirds of his sentence -- would be released. Prosecutors have the option to retry Cottrell on the arson charges or request that he be resentenced on the conspiracy charge.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, would say only that government lawyers were reviewing the decision and would announce their position when the case goes back to the trial court for “further proceedings.”

Cottrell’s attorneys said they would seek his release from the federal prison in Arizona where he is incarcerated.

Cottrell was convicted in 2004 for the arson attacks on the night of Aug. 22, 2003, allegedly staged with fellow Caltech graduate student Tyler Johnson and Johnson’s girlfriend, Michie Oe. Cottrell testified at trial that he thought they were planning only to affix bumper stickers reading “My SUV Supports Terrorism” on the vehicles that offended them.

He said the plan was abandoned when they noticed that bumper stickers misspelled the word “terrorism.” After that, he said, the vandalism escalated into spray-painting, window-smashing and firebombing of the vehicles in Duarte, West Covina, Arcadia and Monrovia. Most of the vehicles were at dealerships. He admitted spray-painting vehicles but denied breaking windows and setting the SUVs on fire.

At trial, Caltech professors testified that Cottrell was a brilliant and promising physics scholar and his attorneys had appealed for leniency from U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner. But the trial judge declined to take Cottrell’s intellectual prowess into consideration, saying it would send the wrong message “to punish some people harder because they’re stupid.”

In upholding the conspiracy conviction, the three-judge appeals panel split 2 to 1 in holding that Cottrell’s affliction didn’t rise to the level of a “gross and verifiable disability” preventing him from understanding what could happen when he set out with two friends to protest the damaging environmental effects of gas-guzzling vehicles.

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism that impairs a person’s ability to interact normally with others and inhibits understanding of facial gestures, body language and other nonverbal signals.

The 9th Circuit panel had initially upheld Cottrell’s arson convictions in February, nearly three years after hearing appeal arguments. But on Thursday, a copy of the panel’s “amended memorandum” arrived in the mail at the Pasadena office of Marvin Rudnick, one of Cottrell’s defense attorneys.

Rudnick said he was surprised and baffled by the unusual means of informing his client of the significantly revised decision. The eight-page document was marked “not for publication.”

Noting that Cottrell has already served most of his sentence, Rudnick speculated that the U.S. attorney’s office might decline to retry the arson case. He said the government probably wouldn’t want the Asperger’s affliction established as a defense against criminal behavior.

Judge Harry Pregerson, appointed to the appeals court by President Carter, dissented from the decision to uphold Cottrell’s conviction on the conspiracy charge.

“Evidence of the complexity, severity and extent of Asperger’s syndrome suffered by Cottrell could have assisted the jury to determine whether arson was a reasonably foreseeable act of the conspiracy,” Pregerson wrote.

Joining Pregerson in the other elements of the amended decision were Judge Ronald M. Gould, named to the bench by President Clinton, and Judge Richard R. Clifton, appointed by President George W. Bush.