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Caltech student's arson convictions are overturned in SUV bombings; sentence is vacated by appeals court

September 10, 2009 |  4:27 pm

Suv Suv2A Caltech graduate student convicted of conspiracy and arson four years ago for the firebombing of SUVs in the San Gabriel Valley has had his arson convictions overturned and his sentence vacated by a federal appeals court panel.

William Cottrell, 29, has already served about two-thirds of his 100-month sentence for the alleged eco-terrorism in 2003 in which 125 SUVs and Hummers were destroyed or damaged by spray-painted graffiti, smashed windows and Molotov cocktails.

It was unclear whether the unpublished decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel would mean his release from a federal prison in Arizona.

The three-judge panel in February had upheld Cottrell's 2005 convictions on conspiracy and seven counts of arson and the 100-month sentence he was given. But in an unpublished opinion released Tuesday, the panel "amended" its February ruling. The judges said the trial court's exclusion of expert testimony about Cottrell's affliction with Asperger's syndrome denied him an opportunity to demonstrate that he couldn't have had specific intent in aiding and abetting the destruction.

Cottrell's defense attorneys, Marvin Rudnick and Michael Mayock, said they didn't know whether their client would be released pending unspecified "further proceedings" ordered by the panel. They speculated that the U.S. attorney's office might decline to retry Cottrell on the arson charges because he has already served most of his term.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, Thom Mrozek, said the government was reviewing the decision and would announce its position when the matter returns to U.S. District Court.

Cottrell was described by professors and colleagues who testified at his trial as brilliant but erratic. Asperger's syndrome is a form of autism that impairs the ability to interact with others or to understand facial expressions and body language.

—Carol J. Williams

Photo: Vandalized vehicles in 2003.

Credit: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times