Physicists campaign to free a jailed ecoterrorist's mind
(Chicago Tribune (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) LOS ANGELES _ William "Billy" Cottrell was such an exceptional student at the University of Chicago that he was described by his professors as something of an eccentric genius. He even won the award for best senior thesis in physics, addressing string theory, which seeks a single way to explain all forces and all forms of matter.
Today the 27-year-old is in jail.
Two years after his 2002 graduation with honors as a double major in physics and math, Cottrell was charged and convicted as one of the nation's first ecoterrorists of the post-Sept. 11 era. He was found guilty of conspiracy and arson in the 2003 firebombings of Hummer and other sport-utility vehicle dealerships in the Los Angeles area to advocate a radical environmentalism. Two conspirators remain at large.
Cottrell is appealing his conviction. One mitigating factor, his supporters argue, is that he is diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which can make his behavior at times inappropriate.
His case is now a cause celebre for some of the nation's most prominent physicists, including four from the University of Chicago and even Stephen Hawking, who have urged better treatment for Cottrell in prison so he could continue his study and research.
A federal jury convicted Cottrell in 2004 of conspiracy and seven counts of arson in the spray-painting and torchings of the vehicles. In what prosecutors say was an example of his brazenness _ his supporters say it evidenced his behavioral disorder, one that's akin to a high-functioning autism _ Cottrell became a remorseless braggart while in hiding by ridiculing the FBI in e-mails to the Los Angeles Times after agents had arrested the wrong man.
As the man labeled a domestic terrorist by authorities serves an 8-year sentence in a medium-security prison in Victorville, Cottrell's case has been taken up by relatives, friends and the scientists.
In an open letter written at the end of last year, Hawking and seven other physicists pressed federal officials to remove Cottrell from "nightmarish" violent inmates and ease restrictions so the physics graduate student can work on "his promise for an outstanding career in theoretical physics, a career in which he could make major contributions to society, through science."
Subsequent to the letter and media coverage, Cottrell was transferred to another California prison and saw other improvements, his father said recently.
Prison officials cited privacy laws protecting Cottrell in not commenting on the letter. But the federal system grants some inmate requests to change prisons, depending on security-level changes, needs such as drug or alcohol treatment, or a 500-mile proximity to the residence to which the prisoner would soon be released, said spokeswoman Traci Billingsley.
"All of the inmates are restricted by the policies and practices, and we don't make any exceptions for any particular inmate," Billingsley said.
Prison officials did not make Cottrell available for a Chicago Tribune interview because "it may cause a disturbance to the good order of the prison," a spokesman said. But in a December letter to the LA Weekly, Cottrell wrote of "good productive" inmates desperately trying to live "an honest life, but the government has actively deprived them of the resources to do so."
"It is a fact that may only be appreciated by coming to prison _ or perhaps by a long-term media campaign _ that the government incarcerates hundreds of thousands of ordinary, harmless citizens, administers prisons so as to maximize violence and minimize rehabilitation, and then actively sets people up for failure in the real world after release," Cottrell wrote.
University of Chicago physics professor emeritus Peter Freund, 70, who supervised Cottrell's bachelor's thesis and who signed the letter of support, has taken the crusade a step further by saying in a recent interview that his former student should be freed because his nearly 3 years of incarceration has been sufficient punishment. Cottrell was also ordered to pay more than $3.5 million in restitution.
But Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said this month that prosecutors would oppose any reduction in sentence. "We believe that the sentence he received was lawful and appropriate," he said.
As Cottrell awaits a decision on his appeal after a hearing last October, supporters are hoping a controversy over his medical diagnosis will lead the appeals court to order a new trial or free Cottrell outright, though the latter usually is not done, Cottrell's attorney said.
A lanky, energetic student who also ran on the University of Chicago's cross-country team, Cottrell has Asperger syndrome, which makes his behavior inappropriate and bizarre at times, according to attorneys on both sides. In 2001, he and his father, a North Carolina anesthesiologist, were featured in a New York Times article about the lengths parents go to find programs and special schools for children with severe behavioral disorders. The article described how, as a teen, he had terrible social skills, experienced fits of rage and was kicked out of three schools.
During Cottrell's trial, the judge did not let the jury hear of the diagnosis after prosecutors argued that it did not affect Cottrell's ability to understand the criminality of his actions.
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Marvin Rudnick, Cottrell's attorney, says expert testimony on Asperger syndrome should be admitted in a retrial.
The disorder had prevented Cottrell from recognizing that his two friends, who are at large and believed to have fled the country, were intending to commit arsons on top of the vandalism, Rudnick said. Cottrell testified he thought they were getting gas because their car ran out of it _ a statement that prosecutors have called perjury.
"He's innocent of what he was convicted of," said Rudnick, a former assistant U.S. attorney. "The interests of the country, especially in the prosecution's office, is to look like they are prosecuting terrorism and they labeled Billy a terrorist even though he has this ... disability."
But prosecutors have said in court filings that Asperger is irrelevant because Cottrell's role as an aider and abettor is "based on an objective standard, not defendant's subjective belief."
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In his testimony, Cottrell has maintained he only spray-painted SUVs and Hummers with condemnations such as "Fat, Lazy, Americans" and references to a shadowy, property-damaging group called Earth Liberation Front, according to court documents. He even spray-painted an obscure mathematical formula called Euler's Theorem on one vehicle. His two friends, a couple, were responsible for the firebombings, and he was duped into being present for them, he testified.
But prosecutors said Cottrell told friends about participating in the arsons and even helped the two conspirators fill detergent bottles with gasoline, later used for Molotov cocktails, during their "Operation Hummer."
The University of Chicago's Freund said he initially was stunned to hear of his former student's involvement in the crime, which Freund noted didn't direct violence at people. Freund is concerned that time may eclipse Cottrell's most productive years; he was a graduate student at California Institute of Technology when he committed the arsons.
"What I would like to see for him at this point is to be shown a little bit of mercy, and in my opinion, that mercy should come. I think he's served his time, and let him be done with it," Freund said. "I think the man is harmless to society and he has certainly suffered immensely while in jail, and to the extent that someone with Asperger's can learn something, he has learned it.
"I would like to see a valuable life not totally destroyed," Freund added. "Such an interruption to a career can be devastating."
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Cottrell's father, also named William, of Concord, N.C., said the letter by Hawking, Freund and other physicists about Cottrell's prison conditions was followed by "major improvements," including how his son was transferred in January to the Victorville prison from one in Lompoc.
About five weeks ago, the aspiring physicist was moved to a cell with no roommates and is now better able to study physics and even Chinese, though he lacks "good library resources," said his father, who has been paying his son's legal bills.
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In particle physics, string theory attempts to merge quantum mechanics with Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. The name comes from the modeling of subatomic particles as tiny one-dimensional "stringlike" entities rather than the standard model of zero-dimensional point particles.
The theory envisions that a string undergoing a particular mode of vibration corresponds to a particle with definite properties such as mass and charge. In the 1980s, physicists realized that string theory had the potential to incorporate all four of nature's forces _ gravity, electromagnetism, strong force, and weak force _ and all types of matter in a single quantum mechanical framework, suggesting that it might be the long-sought unified theory.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicgao Tribune reporting
(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.
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