Cop in Anthrax Hoax Gets Community Service

Posted February 11, 2003 at 6:42pm

The Capitol Police officer who left a note and a white, powdery substance at his post a year and half ago was sentenced to two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service Tuesday.

James Pickett filed notice of his appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit immediately after the hearing. His sentence was suspended pending the outcome.

But according to his lawyer, Eli Gottesdiener, Pickett’s termination from the Capitol Police is imminent regardless of the appeal. The defense counsel told U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson that Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said Pickett would not remain on the force.

“Notwithstanding the [outcome] of the appeal, he’s going to be fired,” Gottesdiener said.

Police spokeswoman Kim Bolinger said Pickett’s case will go before a disciplinary review board that will determine his future on the force.

The defense also told the judge that Pickett’s status was changed from suspension with pay to suspension without pay after the jury handed down its guilty verdict Nov. 21, 2002. The 14-year veteran of the Capitol Police was found guilty of making false statements, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

In November 2001, shortly after a letter containing anthrax was sent to the Hill, Pickett left a note and the contents of an Equal sweetener packet at his post in the Cannon House Office Building tunnel. The note read: “Please inhale. Yes this could be? Call your doctor for flu symptoms. This is a Capitol Police training exercize [sic]! I hope you pass!”

U.S. Attorney Angela Schmidt told the judge that the government didn’t intend to seek jail time but instead wanted 430 hours of community service. She asked the judge to direct Pickett to complete his service with government entities such as the National Park Service as a way to partially repay the taxpayers for the cost of the investigation and trial.

The 430-hour mark reflected what the Capitol Police told the prosecution it spent investigating the case and preparing for trial, according to Schmidt. She also told the judge the force spent $14,000 in connection with the case. Representatives from the Capitol Police’s internal affairs division as well as the general counsel’s office were present throughout the trial.

“A lot of resources have been invested in this prosecution,” she said.

Jackson instead gave Pickett 200 hours of community service and didn’t specify where it was to be served.

Jackson said he would have sentenced Pickett to unsupervised probation if he hadn’t reached the same conclusion that the prosecutor did, that Pickett’s testimony was false.

“For that reason I will extend the probation for two years,” he said.

But Jackson considered the fact that Pickett took responsibility for his act throughout the trial and agreed with the defense that Pickett’s behavior was aberrant and thus merited a lesser sentence.

And even though he didn’t think Pickett was fully truthful, Jackson added: “I do not believe the testimony he gave rises to the level of perjury.” If the judge had found that Pickett perjured himself he would have had to impose a stiffer sentence.

Deeming the defendant unable to pay, Jackson imposed a fine of only $100.

When asked by the judge if he’d like to make a statement, Pickett expressed remorse. “I’d just like to say I’m sorry to you, the government, the probation officer involved in this and my family,” he told the judge.

Gottesdiener called Pickett’s act a “momentary lapse in judgment made without malice.”

“The imposition of the sentence alone ends the career of a 14-year veteran who loved his job and was universally admired. What further was needed?” he said.

Jackson suspended Pickett’s sentence pending his appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and said certain issues deserve attention from the appeals court before consequences are served on Pickett.

Foreshadowing one of the issues he will highlight on appeal, Gottesdiener said the prosecution was “trying to shoehorn dumb conduct into a statute” never designed to cover such acts.

“His crime, [the prosecution] said, was leaving the note in public, and that was consistent with the jury instructions,” Gottesdiener said.

The defense believes that the instructions to the jury, which stated that it could find Pickett guilty of willfully and knowingly making false statements even if he had no intent to deceive anyone, were incorrect.

Throughout the trial the defense maintained that the note was intended only for the eyes of Pickett’s fellow officer and speculated that someone else could have taken it out of the trash and put it back on the desk. Gottesdiener believes the prosecution would have had to prove that Pickett had “an intent to disrupt” the business of the Capitol Police in order to convict him.

Pickett can also appeal on another jury instruction — that the false statement had to be within the jurisdiction of the federal government — which could grant him an acquittal by the appeals court. When Congress revised the statute governing false statements in 1996, it circumscribed its application in the legislative branch to include only two areas: administrative matters and investigation or review. The latter would be the only area applicable in this case.

Gottesdiener maintains that Pickett’s case doesn’t apply even there because there was no investigation or review being conducted that Pickett’s letter affected. The government acknowledged during trial that the letter was never taken seriously, and the white powder was never tested.