Light sentences throw Ohio anarchist bridge-bomb case for a loop
by Matt Pearce
Lighter-than-expected sentences handed down Tuesday for three men convicted of trying to bomb an Ohio bridge has a fourth defendant rethinking his plea deal with the government.
On April 30 -- on the eve of major leftist rallies in Chicago and elsewhere around the U.S. to protest corporations and the government -- five men affiliated with the Occupy movement tried to use an FBI-supplied dummy bomb to blow up a highway bridge in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Prosecutors called it a dangerous anarchist plot that had to be severely punished to deter any would-be imitators.
The defense said a government-paid confidential informant manipulated five impressionable, down-on-their-luck men into an attack they never would have attempted without his help.
In the end, U.S. District Court Judge David D. Dowd Jr. split the difference: He agreed to strengthen three defendants' sentences with a terror enhancement, but then handed down terms Tuesday in Akron significantly lighter than what federal prosecutors had sought.
Douglas L. Wright, 27, of Indianapolis, received 11-1/2 years in federal prison; Brandon L. Baxter, 20, of Lakewood, Ohio, got nine years and nine months; and Connor C. Stevens, 20, of Berea, Ohio, was sentenced to eight years and one month. After their release, all three will remain on probation for the rest of their lives.
Those terms then upset the complex sentencing math that had led a fourth defendant, Anthony Hayne, 35, to negotiate a plea deal with federal prosecutors in exchange for testifying against his partners.
At that time, in July, a U.S. attorney's office spokesman had told the Los Angeles Times that Hayne could get 15 to 19 years in exchange for his help -- a plea bargain that now looks like a raw deal.
Hayne was due to be sentenced Wednesday and his attorney has now filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea instead.
The spirit and intent of his agreement, the motion states, had been "eviscerated," and so Hayne wants to withdraw his guilty plea so that the government honors a deal that he get half the sentence of his cohorts.
“Because the sentences that were issued yesterday were so dramatically lower than the government expected or desired, we now have to research how we can work Mr. Hayne's agreement with the government into a proper and fair sentence for him," Hayne's Cleveland attorney, Michael O'Shea, told the Los Angeles Times. "There is no doubt in my mind that their decision to plead guilty was bolstered by my client's agreement to testify against them.”
The case is a somewhat unusual test of the federal government's terrorism sentencing guidelines, O'Shea said.
Compared to many would-be Al Qaeda plotters who have received lengthy sentences for planning spectacular attacks, the anarchist-affiliated Ohio men -- whose own plot was not oriented around the loss of human life -- have gotten off relatively light.
Judge Dowd's written opinion explaining Tuesday's sentences was not immediately available for review by the Los Angeles Times. But defendant Baxter's attorney, John Pyle, said in a telephone interview that Dowd's opinion cited Baxter's youth as reason for leniency rather than any weakness in the government's controversial use of a still-unidentified confidential informant, whose influence on the plot and whose own criminal background the defense had contested in court.
“I got in serious trouble with this case already because I talked about their informant," Pyle said, explaining why he didn't want to share too much of the judge's memo. "The government thumped on me like I was Alger Hiss .”
The U.S. attorney's office in the Northern District of Ohio did not immediately respond to a request for comment.