Billy Cottrell, the brilliant, award-winning former Cal Tech student who has served 67 months in California prisons for his supporting role in a 2003 ecoterrorism act that turned dozens of gas-guzzling cars into burned-out hulks at car dealerships in Arcadia, Monrovia and West Covina, will be required to serve between 18 and 33 more months in prison.
In court several days ago, the tall, thin 29-year-old Cottrell was clad in white socks, brown sandals and an orange prison jumpsuit — and shackled with a brass chain slung around his waist. Upon hearing the sentence, he hung his head but otherwise showed little emotion. Family and friends in court at the Roybal Federal Building sobbed silently and hugged each other after hearing the news they had long dreaded.
“I’m devastated,” said Bruce Lloyd Kates, a close friend of the Cottrell family who has attended all of Cottrell’s court appearances during his five-and-a-half-year stint in the federal justice system. “We’re all devastated. … Billy is a mathematical genius, possibly the next Einstein, but physics is a young man’s game and his best years are being wasted away in jail because he did a little spray-painting. He was duped into this because of his Asperger’s syndrome, but the jury never got to hear about that — and now a jury never will.”
Cottrell’s lawyers, Michael Mayock and Marvin Rudnick, had urged Judge Gary Klausner to commute his sentence to time already served — thus allowing Cottrell to resume his high-level work in theoretical physics. Klausner refused to let the 2004 jury hear testimony about Cottrell’s Asperger’s, which is sometimes associated with antisocial behavior.
Defense testimony at his criminal trial indicated that Cottrell’s physical acts were limited to spray-painting the burned-out cars with a series of slogans slamming gas-guzzling Hummers and SUVs, and attacking the materialistic, consumer-based American lifestyle. As L.A. Weekly reported in its cover story “A Terrible Thing to Waste” in March 2007, the two friends who invited Cottrell along during the attacks on the SUVs that night, and who, Cottrell later testified, stopped at gas stations to fill gas containers but never told him their plans, are on the lam and have never been brought to trial.
Because Cottrell was present when the fires were set, allegedly by his friends, only Cottrell — who was quickly caught by police — was left to stand trial. A highlight of the trial came when the owner of one of the damaged car lots testified: “He may be the next Einstein like they say, but to me he’s a Frankenstein.”
Although no one was hurt or killed in the late-night attacks on the car lots, Judge Klausner has treated the case as a serious example of domestic ecoterrorism. On November 16, he stuck with his original 100-month sentence, which will keep Cottrell behind bars, possibly for almost three more years. Klausner told the spectators in the courtroom that he had little sympathy for the arguments for compassion advanced by Cottrell’s lawyers.
Imprisoned with hard-core felons, including members of the Mexican Mafia, Cottrell has found new areas of interest, like teaching math to other inmates. His supporters argue that if allowed out early, he could accomplish far more good through his work in theoretical physics.
But the biggest reason for compassion cited by his lawyers is the evidence never revealed to the jury: Cottrell’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that allows for high-functioning abilities. His disease was diagnosed after the ecoterror attack but before his trial. Cottrell’s attorneys cite the syndrome as the reason he got suckered into the conspiracy by the two men, who are presumed to have fled the country.
They say that the men, one of whom Cottrell owed $500, woke him up at night and told him they were going to spray-paint some environmental messages and he could work off his debt by helping them. His friends and family say Cottrell went along, not understanding what was about to unfold.
Even though a U.S. government psychiatrist agreed with the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome before the original trial, the government prosecution team adamantly opposed the admission of any Asperger’s testimony in front of the jury.
Last week’s resentencing hearing was the result of a series of recent legal decisions that left Cottrell’s family, friends, and attorneys Mayock and Rudnick optimistic of a long-awaited break in the controversial case, which they say never should have been prosecuted.
“Billy was a witness to this crime,” Rudnick, a former federal prosecutor himself, tells the Weekly. “He shouldn’t have been there, but still this was prosecution of a witness because they couldn’t catch the real ecoterrorists … the government had to convict someone and Billy was left holding the bag when the real bad guys got away.”
They had hoped that Judge Klausner, who presided over the original trial, would look at the big picture and realize that whatever Cottrell’s true level of involvement in the fiery attacks, which damaged more than 125 vehicles, he had already paid his debt to society.
First, on September 8, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Cottrell had not been given a fair trial because the jury was not allowed to hear about his Asperger’s syndrome and the part it may have played in his recruitment and participation in the attacks. The court ordered that he be given a new trial for seven of the eight felony arson charges he was convicted of, but it let stand his conviction on one charge of conspiracy to commit arson.
Then, last week, the federal government announced it was dropping the seven arson charges, thus eliminating the chance of a retrial, and ending the possibility of his Asperger’s being introduced as evidence. All that was left was for Judge Klausner to resentence him on the one remaining charge of conspiracy to commit arson.
But Klausner explained why, despite the reversal by the appeals court on seven of the eight charges, he was not changing his original sentence of 100 months in prison, which allows for the possibility of release after 85 months, depending on Cottrell’s prison behavior: “He may be one of the best minds in physics, and I would have liked to see that talent used from day one. But talent doesn’t excuse him from having to abide by the law. These crimes were really heinous — lives were affected, a hundred vehicles were destroyed and there were many millions of dollars of damages. This cannot be minimized.”
But the judge also addressed the human side of the thinking behind his sentence.
“Is it sad to see him in prison? You bet. But you have to take accountability for what you have done. It did involve quite a bit of planning, and the defendant did not play a minor role. … There is no question this was done to influence and intimidate the conduct of other people.”
Sensing the despair in the courtroom, Klausner said it will not be too late for Cottrell to realize his potential when he is released.
“I believe it will happen, that he will be very productive,” he said.
Attorney Rudnick said he was shocked that Klausner refused to alter his 100-month sentence.
“As a matter of public policy, it is unusual for there to be no consideration given like this, none at all,” Rudnick says. “Very unusual.”
But Cottrell family friend Kates says he believes it is easy to understand why the judge insisted on sticking with his original sentence.
“The judge is trying to save face. He intentionally overlooked the reality of Asperger’s at the original trial and now he wants to stick by this to justify himself, to keep from losing face,” Kates says. “I experience this as a tragedy, but the judge doesn’t care. He is making it all about himself.”