Back in 2003, William Jenson Cottrell was involved in the destruction of 125 SUV's. At the time of his trial, Brian O'Connor, writing the blog Animal Crackers, thought Cottrell was a dupe of provocateurs from Earth Liberation Front. He was convicted, and is serving 8 1/2 years. The length of his sentence (and possibly the conditions of his incarceration), are evidently influenced by the Patriot Act.
Cottrell has Asperger's Syndrome, which apparently was not diagnosed until his trial in 2004. The conditions of his incarceration are not good.
As far as I am aware, the other two people involved in the incidents, Tyler Johnson and Michie Oe, are still fugitives.
Brian O'Connor, without mitigating Cottrell's responsibility, called him by the term made popular by Lenin: a "useful idiot". The phrase referred to those in the free world (especially the United State) sympathetic to the Soviet cause. It also has the implication that the person so referred to was "naïve, foolish, or in wilful denial, and was being cynically used by the Soviet Union, or another Communist state."
O'Connor thought Cottrell was being used by provocateurs in the Earth Liberation Front, who incided others to perform illegal acts:
part of the strategy of groups like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and ELF is to inflame passions, point out targets and entice unknown "useful idiots" to do the actual violent deed...[snip]
David Martosko (of the Center For Consumer Freedom) is right when he says (of extremist Jerry Vlasak): 'He's not making bombs, but he is making bombers.' So it is with those who design and post the extremist websites.
It seems to me that Mr. Cottrell is exactly the kind of person at whom ALF, ELF, SHAC and similar such groups aim their website propaganda: somebody who - for whatever reason - is dissatisfied by the ideological and religious options offered by conventional institutions, and is seeking a spirituality that is something more uplifting (or at least different) than what he sees those institutions offering.
O'Connor also didn't think much of the "I was duped because I have Asperger's" defense Cottrell's attorneys proposed.
Frankly, I think that the "I couldn't help it because I have Asperger's syndrome" defense is a non-starter. If I were the prosecutor, I'd ask the defense's expert witness if every person with Asperger's syndrome was an arsonist and a person who was unable to resist the call of some loopy ideology to torch a legal business. And if all people with Asperger's syndrome aren't ideologically driven arsonists whose goal it is to perfect the world, why should we cut Mr. Cottrell any slack? If others with Asperger's syndrome can control themselves, why can Mr. Cottrell not?
If I were a juror, I'd want to answers to these same questions.
To me, the affidavit paints a picture of Mr. Cottrell as an arrogant young man who thought he was smarter than the average FBI yokel and who felt he was acting on behalf of a higher calling. He knew right from wrong, as evidence by the steps he took to cover his tracks. He just thought he was too smart to get caught.
O'Connor later published a message from a person with Asperger's, who took exception to the defense's claims. O'Connor closed out his Cottrell commentary as follows:
One tragedy of this situation — and others like it — is that those who argue that violent illegal acts are morally justifiable and are heroically undertaken will walk free, while those like Mr. Cottrell who allow themselves to be seduced by extremist propaganda, and who actually do the violent deeds, will likely go to jail if caught. For example, Jerry Vlasak, MD, openly advocates the act of assassination to further the Animal Rights cause, and argues that it is morally justifiable in the interests of the Animal Rights movement. If some anonymous person (a "useful idiot") decides to act out Dr. Vlasak's call to arms, that person will go to jail for a long time if caught, but Dr. Vlasak may well not.
I've tried to make this point many times: don't be a pawn of the clever propagandists who remain safely out of jail while you gamble your promising future for a fantasy utopia by torching SUV's or assassinating the odd scientist or two.
Finally, my purpose in posting tough, very pointed articles is to reveal the extremist propaganda for what it is, and to discourage other people — particularly those who might be seduced by radical fantasies — from succumbing to the temptations dangled by extremists, and keep them from becoming "useful idiots."
In the end, the jury did not hear anything about Cottrell's diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, nor how it might have affected Cottrell's decision-making.
A 2006 study in Wales found that there was no correlation between a diagnosis of Asperger's and criminal activity.
It does seem that the conditions of Mr. Cottrell's incarceration are unduly harsh.
A Terrible Thing to Waste--L.A. Weekly article on Cottrell in prison
Boing Boing: Look at life in prison for Hummer-destroyer
Cottrell's Sentencing A Function of the Patriot Act
Aspire's Page on the Cottrell case
Animal Crackers: Cottrell compared to Lindh
Animal Crackers: William Cottrell the "Useful Idiot"
Animal Crackers: William Cottrell's "I Couldn't Help It" Defense
Animal Crackers: More on William Cottrell's "I Couldn't Help It" Defense
Animal Crackers: William Cottrell and Collateral Pain
Animal Crackers: Vanished ELF Support for Cottrell
Asperger's Syndrome from NINDS
BBC report on Welsh Asperger's Syndrome and Crime study