Update: The Associated Press and other sources, reporting on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision to overturn Caltech graduate student Billy Cottrell's arson-and-conspiracy conviction and vacate his sentence, say it remains unclear tonight whether Cottrell will be released from federal prison.

The L.A. Times is reporting that the U.S. Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has issued an opinion, still unpublished, that may void the 2005 conviction of Billy Cottrell, the brilliant Caltech math instructor convicted of vandalism and arson charges in the 2003 attacks against San Gabriel Valley SUV dealerships.

Writer Carol J. Williams says the federal appeals panel, which in February had upheld Cottrell's conviction and subsequent 8.5-year sentence, has now found that “[t]he judges said the trial court's exclusion of expert testimony about Cottrell's affliction with Asperger's syndrome denied him an opportunity to demonstrate that he couldn't have had specific intent in aiding and abetting the destruction.” Cottrell has already served two-thirds of his sentence in Arizona.

When this writer interviewed the now-29-year-old Cottrell in a San Bernardino jail prior to his trial, he adamantly maintained his innocence but seemed distracted and prone to look away from his interviewer. Then, he was accused of helping two other individuals damage or incinerate 125 SUVs and Hummers – his alleged confederates fled the country, leaving Cottrell alone to stand trial on conspiracy charges.

According to a Mayo Clinic Web site, Asperger's syndrome is marked by the display of “unusual nonverbal communication, such as lack of eye

contact, few facial expressions, or awkward body postures and gestures

. . . . Having a hard time 'reading' other people or understanding humor.”

In 2007, L.A. Weekly reporter Judith Lewis wrote how federal prison

authorities in Lompoc, apparently fearing Cottrell's intellectual

powers, moved him away from any positions of responsibility and

subjected him to harassment as an “eco-terrorist” – a designation protested in a letter signed by such academics as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

“But instead of helping him in prison,” wrote Lewis, “the letter seemed only to make things worse: Two weeks after the hearing, Cottrell was mysteriously thrown in the Hole.”

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