Two Years From Reluctant Judge for Framed Activist

Phoenix social justice activist Laro Nicol appeared for sentencing in federal court September 27, after pleading guilty to reduced weapons and explosives charges. But the judge wondered if he should have, given the outrageous circumstances surrounding the prosecution.

"I don't know if the court can accept this plea," said District Judge Paul Rosenblatt, as he criticized the government for relying in large part on statements from "unreliable" informants. He said he could either accept the plea and proceed to sentencing or reject the plea and schedule Nicol for trial.

For the sake of his family, Nicol told the judge, he could not risk the greater charges and longer prison terms of the original indictment. "By accepting the lesser of two evils, I can get on with my life."

Rosenblatt acknowledged the many letters in support of Nicol, praising his charity and commitment to social justice. "They all say that Mr. Nicol is the victim. This court," protested the judge, "is not in the practice of sentencing the victim."

Nonetheless, at the end of the day Rosenblatt sentenced Nicol to two years in prison, and ordered him to self-surrender by December 1.

Nicol's situation bears the clear marks of a convenient political prosecution. One of the police informants had met Nicol while the former editor of The Current, a Phoenix peace newsletter, worked Phoenix's urban core neighborhoods with Copwatch, a police accountability group. Police offered the informant a deal to avert her own prosecution, and got a brief statement in return with enough references to guns, drugs and explosives to persuade a judge to issue a search warrant.

The Nicol home was raided two weeks before the invasion of Iraq, while Nicol was at his job as an air traffic controller at the municipal airport in suburban Goodyear. Federal agents seized his safely locked gun collection and model rocketry supplies to build their case. No evidence of methamphetamine use was ever found, but the allegation nonetheless led to enhanced criminal charges as a " prohibited possessor."

Although Nicol had gone to the police on his own hours after learning of the house raid, the arraigning judge declared the father of three a danger to the community and he was held without bond for more than two months, causing job loss and hardship for his family.

Last April, the former Marine reluctantly agreed to plead guilty to possession of an unregistered destructive device (a small homemade firework) and possession of an unregistered machine gun (legally purchased gun parts that the FBI claimed could be assembled into a machine gun).

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The Nuclear Resister
October 2004