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Pipe Dreams 

by Joel Smith

Here's former Eastern Washington University student Brent Johnson's idea of a good time on a Saturday night: A nice dinner, maybe swing by Ace Hardware, pick up some gunpowder and a metal pipe, head back to the dorm, build yourself a bomb and chuck it out the window in the middle of the night.

Harmless college fun, right?

Hardly. In a few weeks, Johnson will be tried by Spokane County for two counts of second-degree malicious explosion for blowing up two pipe bombs on Eastern's campus, the first on Oct. 28 of last year, the second a week later, on Nov. 6. The charge is a Class A felony, meaning Johnson could spend as many as 16 years in prison and be saddled with "felon" status for the rest of his life. Eugene Distler, another Eastern student, is charged with one count of second-degree malicious explosion and one count of rendering criminal assistance for his complicity in the second incident.

The case has many in the community up in arms. Paul Mack, Johnson's attorney, has received dozens of letters from people who know Johnson and think the charges leveled against him are disproportionately severe. "In my experience, it's an incredibly stringent punishment," says Mack.

He and Johnson's supporters acknowledge the foolishness of the prank but point out that the young man has no criminal history, claiming that, poor judgment aside, he's a model citizen. Johnson's pastor at Spokane's First Presbyterian church cites Johnson's work at the church and a youth group mission to Mexico to build houses for the poor.

Much of the debate over the issue, voiced in the university's campus newspaper and in the letters sent to Mack, makes reference to the effect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the prosecution of these types of crimes. In their letter to Mack, Dave and Shirley Auble, friends of the Johnson family, write that "if it were not for the events of 9/11 ... this pipe bomb incident would have drawn little or no attention." Daniel Finney, another family friend and a lawyer with Witherspoon Kelley Davenport, writes that "treating Brent as if he were some kind of domestic terrorist is completely inappropriate."

Readers on the The Easterner's Web site have accused the university of calling for excessive punishment. According to Tom McGill, director of public safety at the university, Johnson and Distler were taken into custody after the incident, interviewed by university police officers and representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He adds that his department recommended charges to the prosecuting attorney that they thought were appropriate.

The prosecuting attorney agreed that the charge -- second-degree malicious explosion -- fit the crime. Rachel Sterett, the attorney prosecuting the case for the county, denies being pressured by the university to levy a heavy charge. "We make the charging decisions," she says. "We review it for the sufficiency of the evidence ... on evidence alone."

Johnson and Distler both admit to their culpability in the incident. However, what the case may come down to is whether the charge fits the crime as well as Sterett suggests it does -- specifically, was the explosion malicious? Did Johnson and Distler have malicious intent? Mack's defense seems to rest on the claim that his clients checked for passersby in the area below their dorm window and didn't throw the bomb out until they knew the area was clear.

The malice question, says Mack, "is for a jury or a judge. That could probably go either way ... If I'm right, my guy walks free. If I'm wrong, he goes to prison for 12 to 16 years."

Publication date: 05/26/05

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