Mon, Nov 05, 2001 - Page 1 News List

US anthrax hoaxers get little sympathy from justice system


For allegedly leaving an envelope of white powder on his boss' desk, an Ohio man faces a possible six months in jail. Kentucky college students accused of mailing confectioners' sugar to a friend could spend up to five years in federal prison. A Connecticut man could get five years, too, for a hoax that shut his office.

The justice system so far is showing little patience with people who cause anthrax hoaxes. "Those who believe this is an opportunity for a prank should know that sending false alarms is a serious criminal offense," US President George W. Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. "We will pursue anyone who tries to frighten their fellow Americans in this cruel way."

Since mid-October, the Postal Inspection Service has received more than 8,600 hoax threats or reports of incidents related to anthrax. That's an average of 578 a day for an agency more accustomed to dealing with a few hundred such calls a year, said spokesman Dan Mihalko.

"Prosecutors want to grab these initial hoaxers and effectively hoist the wretch for all the other potential hoaxers to see," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.

In at least one recent case, however, a grand jury reduced a charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. John Silz of Cincinnati, Ohio, was charged with inducing panic for leaving an envelope with white powder on his boss' desk as a joke.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said the "overwhelming majority" of the 2,300 incidents or suspected scares reported to the bureau since Oct. 1 had been false alarms or practical jokes.

But with no way of knowing a prank from a real threat, police must respond to all. And the time it takes to investigate uses up resources that law enforcement could devote elsewhere in the war on terrorism.

Turley separates the pranksters into two categories: "dimwitted" jokesters who essentially mean no harm, and malicious people who would spread anthrax if they could.

Jurors in such cases, worried about their own safety, won't view the defendants with much sympathy, said Carolyn Koch, a jury consultant in Fairfax, Virginia. "Wasting resources on hoaxes won't be viewed kindly," she said.

It's been that way for a long time. In 1999, a federal court in Los Angeles fined Harvey Craig Spelkin more than US$600,000 for telephoning a US Bankruptcy Court where he was to appear and saying: "You should check the air conditioning system for anthrax." The money was to reimburse the city for its fire and police department's expenses in dealing with the possibly deadly situation.

Judges should have some discretion in sentencing because the prescribed punishments may be too harsh, said Martin Pinales, secretary of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, whose law firm represents Silz, the man who allegedly sent his boss white powder.

"The judge ought to have the right to look at them, their circumstances, their mental state at the time, and to look at their intentions," said Pinales.

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