Some of you have asked about my son and the recent case in District Court.
It all started with those famous Aspergian Special Interests. In my son's case, the interest was model rockets, when Cubby was seven years old. We filled tubes with vinegar and baking soda, and launched them beside the house.
From there, Cubby quickly progressed to Estes models and electrical igniters, launched from the big field by the Umass stadium. By the time he was twelve, Cubby made his own rockets from scratch. That’s where most kids stop. Not Cubby.
He became fascinated by chemistry. In particular, he was enthralled by what chemists call “energetic materials,” a fancy terms for explosive stuff. Cubby learned how to make rocket fuel, and then, how other explosive compounds are constructed. He sent rockets half a mile into the air. Few middle school kids do that. I was proud of his technical skill.
As you can imagine, I was also a little troubled, because I didn’t want him to get hurt. However, I considered my own experiments at his age, and how they came out, and his obvious love of science. I did my best to help him learn safety, and it worked. He never got hurt, nor did he hurt anyone else.
He had fun with compounds like flash powder, which I’d used in special effects thirty years before. However, I bought the flash powder. Cubby made it. By the winter of 2007, Cubby knew enough to make high grade explosives, and he could do so from ordinary hardware store chemicals. He set his sights on college, and a career as a chemist. He wanted to learn all he could.
He devoured all the chemistry texts he could find. His ability to sweep in new knowledge is similar to my own, and it was interesting to watch.
That winter, he put some videos of his test explosions on Youtube. They weren’t much, really, compared to what many of my generation did as kids. They were no more than capfuls of explosive set off on the ground, in the woods. It was pretty tame stuff compared to what I remembered from my own childhood. However, 9-11 had happened and the climate was different.
You better take those down, I warned him. But he refused, and at age 17, I wasn’t really sure I should force the issue. After all, he was almost an adult. I know my own Aspergian special interests, and how driven I was, at his age. He was the same way.
The videos did him in. One day, while Cubby was in class at HCC, the ATF and State Police came calling. By nightfall, it was all over the news as they descended on his mother’s house, where he had a basement lab.
Cubby called to tell me the news, and I headed right over. I drove to his mother’s in a state of high anxiety. I met agents from the ATF, who said, “You have a very smart kid, but this stuff is dangerous.” After getting over their initial concern, they seemed to take a liking to Cubby. It was obvious that he wasn’t a danger to society, and he knew exactly what he had and where it was.
One of the agents said, The ATF gets one or two cases like this every year, with mad scientist teenagers. It’s a refreshing change from outlaw bikers and pipe bombs. I could see his point. Before they left, the ATF people said the Federal government had no further interest in Cubby. They were satisfied that he wasn’t a threat to anyone.
The state police were satisfied he wasn’t a threat too, but as they say, the
decisions for them are up to the local DA. And that’s where they left it. They packed up and went home. Cubby was very distressed and worried. So was I.
A reasonable DA would have interviewed Cubby, to see what was going on. After all, DAs are there to prosecute crimes, and crimes require criminal intent – something Cubby did not have. So far, scientific curiosity is not against the law.
Cubby certainly felt terrible about all the trouble he'd caused. He even apologized on the evening news. However, no one in goverment saw fit to listen, or talk to him. He was stuck.
The DA - seeing the television reporters, and the potential for headlines - filed felony charges without ever speaking to Cubby. In fact, they announced the charges to the media before giving his attorney the courtesy of a phone call. That made their game – their true motives - pretty clear, in my opinion.
That’s how they played it, every step of the way. Innuendo and inflammatory remarks. All the while, at the request of the lawyers, I kept quiet. I held my tongue right up to the trial, in Northampton’s Superior Courtroom Three.
The prosecutor paraded an army of witnessed through the court. Chemists from the FBI. Agents from the ATF. Bomb squad investigators from the state police. We heard, in great detail, all about the explosive compounds he had made, and the household chemicals he made them from. We also heard that every chemical he bought for his lab was perfectly legal and totally unregulated.
What we didn’t hear was one bit of evidence that Cubby had anything more than an interest in science. We didn’t hear a word about malice. We didn’t see a single shred of property damage. In fact, the prosecutor could not even identify the spots in the woods where Cubby set off his test blasts. The court had to take his word for it.
And yet the crime he was charged with was malicious destruction of property. So far, chemistry alone isn’t a crime. Why were we even there? The trial lasted four long days.
Amazingly, the prosecutor had never even met Cubby before the arraignment. Wouldn’t you think a responsible prosecutor would have a duty to explore his thinking, in an unusual case like this? Yet she never said a word to him before he took the stand in his own defense. As soon as he did, she went on the attack. But her innuendo and accusations finally failed her, as she stood before the jury.
You left high school because you didn’t have any friends, didn’t you! The prosecutor shouted baseless accusations at Cubby, her face twisted in a venomous mask. What was wrong with her, I wondered? Cubby answered calmly. No, he said. I left because I was bored with the classes. I have lots of friends. I wanted to take college courses. Behind him, the court was packed with his supporters who gave silent lie to her words.
A few moments later, she said, . . . you had a hundred pounds of explosive on your shelf. No, Cubby said. You’re wrong. It was a hundred grams, not a hundred pounds. Big difference. And the slip – intentional or not - wasn’t lost on the jurors, as Cubby sat there being his peaceable geeky self.
I couldn’t tell if she truly believed Cubby was a monster, or if she was blinded by the potential for headlines and the opportunity to build her own career on the back of a gentle teenager. It was very sad to see her base urges collide with the court's search for truth, especially when I considered that DA’s office is supported by my own tax dollars.
It took the jury less than three hours to return a verdict. Not guilty on all counts.
Meanwhile, real criminals go free in this town. Crack is sold in our schools, and burglars loot the homes. The money spent on this case might have made a real difference, applied to issues like that. But will it happen, or will justice and public safety take a backseat to petty career advancement? I'm not the only one who thinks an overhaul of that office is long overdue.
After all, these are the same prosecutors who brought us the Pottygate scandal. All I can say is, Google it and you'll see what I mean. A Grand Jury invstigation for the theft of the DA's private bathroom key? Have we got our priorities right over there??
What was this case really about? If you think the answer is truth and justice, the easiest place for the DA to find it would have been in an interview with Cubby, back when the whole thing started. I think that goal was lost early on, in the bright lights of the TV cameras. I think this whole case was about naked power and ambition on the part of that prosecutor. I think she saw a chance to advance her career with absolutely no regard to the cost on Cubby, a sweet Aspergian teenager who didn't fully grasp what was happening, couldn't defend himself, and who'd done something unusual that she could build and twist into a wild terrorist threat.
As I said before, it's a very sad commentary on our legal system that a case like this ever went forward. And in this economy, it's even sadder to think of the money we don't have squandered on a case like this when real and pressing problem go unchecked.
One result of the publicity is that Cubby was invited to study at the University of Massachusetts, where he plans to transfer as soon as possible. He’s still set on getting his doctorate in chemistry, but not in energetic materials. He’ll be doing quieter reactions from now on. As his attorney David Hoose said, he’s learned a lot and gotten explosives out of his system.
Actually, his work with me at the TMS lab has gotten him interested in brain science, and the chemistry behind how we think. Who knows where that will take him?
Here's a video from CBS news:http://www.cbs3springfield.com/news/local/46277157.html
Here's the story from our local paper:http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/05/jury_weighs_case_against_john.html?category=Amherst&category=Crime&category=South%20Hadley