Court says judge should have allowed Asperger's defense in eco-terrorism case

A federal court has ruled that a Caltech student should have been able to refer to his Asperger’s syrdrome as a defense in a high-profile arson case. The court overturned William Cottrell’s conviction in the torching of dozens of SUVs at car dealerships in the San Gabriel Valley six years ago. KPCC’s Frank Stoltze says prosecutors at the time called the crime an act of eco-terrorism.

Frank Stoltze: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said it was wrong for a trial judge to exclude expert testimony that Cottrell’s Asperger’s syndrome means he couldn’t have had “specific intent” in “aiding and abetting” in the crime. Cottrell went along with two other people and spray-painted SUVs – but his attorney Marvin Rudnick says he didn’t firebomb the vehicles.

Marvin Rudnick: He obviously, he saw what happened, but he didn’t realize it was going to happen again after he told them to stop. And as a result of that, we claimed his Apsperger’s impaired his ability to determine the nature of the activities.

Stoltze: Asperger’s is a kind of autism that affects the ability to draw inferences. Rudnick says Cottrell, who’s 29 years old, is having a hard time in federal prison.

Rudnick: One day he was trying to change the channel on the TV and he got into a terrible fight, and he tried to turn on the news and they wanted to watch I Love Lucy.

Stoltze: The court upheld Cottrell’s conspiracy conviction and sent the case back to the trial judge. Cottrell has served two-thirds of his eight-year sentence. A spokesman for federal prosecutors said they’re reviewing the decision.

Cottrell’s attorney says he’s unsure whether authorities will release his client from prison as a result of the decision.

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