Cubbys Day in Court

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:

Here's the story from our local paper:


Maureen McGowan said…
Wow. What a story, John. I'm sorry that you and your family had to go through all that, but at least the jury saw through to the truth.
Eric said…
John, my heart (and tear ducts) opened up at this story and your son's experiences. What Cubby went through could have been anyone of us, and I weep at the thought of other Asperigans going through (or have gone through) what he did. I went through my own experiences with rockets and small explosives in the 60's & 70's in good ole Franklin County, and came very close to what happened to him.

Fortunately, at the time cooler heads prevailed, and no charges were filed. But this happened on the eve of my entering college, and I still shake at how close I could have come to losing school, having a record, etc. I too was a very peaceful kid, and destruction of property was the last thing on my mind. We did most of our experiments in the meadows of Greenfield, no property was damaged. We just loved seeing the explosions and trying to create better ones.

You and I were probably saved by the 'boys will be boys' mentality at the time,and I am so sorry that Cubby had to face otherwise. I also wonder if that DA was on loan from Franklin County, sounds strangely familiar. I don't know Cubby except through your wonderful stories. But I am so very proud of how he conducted himself in his handling of this situation. He has a wonderful group of supporters, and a fantastic Father who did a beautiful job of raising him. My hat's off to you John.
China said…
That's neat, but I'm sure a frustrating and stressful process in court. I'm glad Orangeboy is just into math right now.
Imagine..we wouldnt have the Goddard Space Flight Center...nor would Jimmy Neutron have such a cool name for a robot dog...all if men such as Goddard hadn't been interested in things that go up very quickly. Wonder how many other great inventors we are stiffling out there. My 15 yr old aspie gets chided because he masters video games and computer...if he mastered football or baseball...he would be a "Hero"..funny how that works.
Melissa said…
Sorry you all had to go through that but glad that is seems to have a silver linig for his future. Maybe he should consider a career with the FBI or ATF. He could help them better identify those with malice and those just that smart and curious. It sounds like he handled himself with incredible maturity and composure. What a neat kid.
Melissa said…
Sorry you all had to go through that but glad that is seems to have a silver linig for his future. Maybe he should consider a career with the FBI or ATF. He could help them better identify those with malice and those just that smart and curious. It sounds like he handled himself with incredible maturity and composure. What a neat kid.
Anonymous said…
John, I read this story on Masslive and first wondered if you were related - the name obviously gave it away. I am sorry to hear that you and your family had to go through all that but I am glad things are working out. Keep the faith!
John- What an amazing testament to your wisdom as parents, to allow your child to explore his interests while keeping an eye on boundaries. You knew Cubby was safe, but you let him to push some limits too, by not forcing him to take his videos down.

I think kids learn so much by those tests, and that's how we grow. We're shaped by our trials as much as our triumphs, and not always in a negative way. At the very least, Cubby knows he has parents and friends who stand solidly behind him and support him. All best to you.
Doreen Orion said…
My, have things changed since we were kids. I shudder to think what would have happened to my cousin and me with all the science "experiments" we did in his basement.

Big MWAH to you and Cubby.
Boo, You Suck said…
As the mother of a five-year-old Aspergian boy who is into model rocketry, this story gave me an anxiety attack.
i'm so glad things have turned out well and that cubby is getting such a great opportunity out of it all. what a scary situation to have to deal with. you and your family has done so much to expose the world to the reality of neurodiversity, and we are all the better for it.
This seems to be yet another example of the Nanny State out of control. Not only that, but a case of mediocre adults in power trying to attack brilliant young people for no reason other than fear.

Justice prevailed. If I had been a juror on this case, I would have been furious. How did something like this even get brought to trial in the first place?

My mother had an active crack house/meth lab going next door to her home (the other house's wall was less than 6 inches away) for more than 3 years. Everyone in the neighborhood called the police on a near-daily basis, nothing was ever done. Until the meth lab blew up and the house burned down.

THAT was a public menace. Your son is not. When will society stop punishing its most talented and brilliant members just because they are different?

Jill Elaine Hughes
Anonymous said…
that's horrendous! i'm so sorry cubby had to go through that. i couldn't get the link to work but i did read the local paper that we got today (that's how i knew of the story) and in that article they said you got upset when cubby got in trouble initially, that you kicked him out of the house and so cubby set up his lab at his mom's. that press. can they get ANYTHING right?

everybody wants a good story. but the thing is, the real story IS good. cubby is fascinated with science, has a cool brain, is gentle and responsible to me, that's a better story than they wanted to drum up.
Jane Maco said…
Hi John, hi Jack! Glad the truth prevailed!Good luck at U Mass Jack.
Daily said…
i'm pleased that you wrote about this, it's very interesting and i too wonder about the imbalance of justice in our court/legal systems. we are actually in the midst of one ourselves and it's shocking to me how things can get blown out of proportion.

i'm glad it worked out so well for cubby.
spacedlaw said…
That DA is obviously incompetent, possibly too bent on making a career for herself. Good thing you guys kept calm and collected. And how marvelous that your son should get accepted into university as a result! I am sure he will do great things.
Amanda said…
Well I'm proud of you and Cubby for rising above that demented woman and allowing her to hang herself. She certainly didn't need any help in that direction, but I despair that you both had to go through that. Great news about Uni tho'!! I hope THAT got publicised as a follow up media piece.
John Robison said…
Thanks so much for all yor support. I sure am glad the jury was able to see through that DA.
Interesting twist that the son of John Robison was "railroaded" - and I'm sorry it happened to your family, John. I'd love to hear her reasoning for persuing the case blindly. In my side of the autism world, we see docs like that all the time. Black is black and don't you dare present them with gray, or heaven forbid, pink. They have no ability to wrap their heads around nuance.

For those with kids on the spectrum or in law enforcement, check out Dennis Debbaudt's They train law enforcement in working with people on the spectrum.

Chris Eldin said…
I came over from Twitter.

I had no idea your family was going through this. It's terrible and quite shocking how far this went without any evidence. I thought there had to be a presentation of evidence before something made it to a trial?! OMG. And then, who surfs YouTube for this stuff?
Your son sounds like a brilliant person. Hugs to all of you.
Ted MacD said…
Wow - it blows my mind that your son was even charged. Bloody ridiculous! I'm sorry your family was put through this simply because some ambitious idiot wanted to further their own career.

Fortunately the jury saw through the prosecutor's BS and rendered a proper judgement. And some good did come out of it - the DA was made to look the the fool they were and your son got called up to University.

IMHO, however, the DA should be tarred and feathered - or at least voted out of office come the next election.

Take care and all the best to you and your family!


jess said…

In addition to a hearty congratulations at the verdict, i just have to tell you ... after watching that little video clip it is STAGGERING ot me to see the incredible similarities between you and Cubbie. Holy cow!!! Not only does he look startlingly like his dad, his manerisms are amazingly similar, if not identical. When he finishes a sentence, a sets his mouth EXACTLY like you do as if to say, 'Well, yup, that's what I'm telling ya."

He was poised and graceful under incredible pressure. You must be incredibly proud!
jess said…
shoot .. that's 'to' and 'cubby' .. my internal spell check seems to take fridays off
cath c said…
wow, so sorry your family had to go through that. and it makes me grateful that my son only wants to make monster movies a la godzilla.

power is what makes people monsters, and that prosecutor sure went for broke.

then again, i used to do some pretty crazy things with firecrackers, flames, electricity...and i'm not particularly're right about the things we did as kids in a 'gentler time'
Daily said…
p.s. cubby was so very well spoken and i love that he wasn't intimidated by the prosecutor. i just shared the video with my husband and every time i see that women's animation i am quite put off by it. bad acting.
Anonymous said…
What a senseless waste of time for the courts! Un-believable how stupidly they proceeded with a case with no basis for punishment. I am sorry Cubby went through such an experience!
Unknown said…
I was happy to hear all turned out in your son's favor John. Best wishes to Cubby!
Kimg0123 said…
Wow, I am so sorry that your family was traumatized by our out of whack legal system. I can't believe that the prosecutor didn't even speak with Cubby before flying off her rocker. I am sure glad that the jury saw through the big smokescreen, but it is a shame that it was even taken that far. I am sometimes ashamed of what our elected officials have the power to do and with that they would consider was a real bad situation really is. Our aspies need support and encouragement not abuse by our legal system! I love my little aspie and I cannot imagine ever having to go through something like what you had to go through. Your story brought tears to my eyes and my heart goes out to you and your family. Cubby is a bright and curious kid and that should be encouraged not penalized or criminalized. Thanks for posting your story. It was really amazing. Good luck and God Bless!
Sandra Cormier said…
I'm glad you spoke out, John. You must be so proud of that boy. He'll go places, for sure.
Anonymous said…
John, I'm sorry your family and son had to go through all that. I wish the attorneys could have used some common sense.

What Cubby did was not unusual at all. (My late father-in-law, who wasn't an Aspie made nitrogycerine in high school chemistry class one day in the early 1940s because he was bored. He got a short suspension and no police were called).

It's unfortunate that in today's climate of fear that some people don't use their common sense to distinguish this type of experimentation from terrorism.
Anonymous said…
John, I'm sorry your family and son had to go through all that. I wish the attorneys could have used some common sense.

What Cubby did was not unusual at all. (My late father-in-law, who wasn't an Aspie made nitrogycerine in high school chemistry class one day in the early 1940s because he was bored. He got a short suspension and no police were called).

It's unfortunate that in today's climate of fear that some people don't use their common sense to distinguish this type of experimentation from terrorism.
Cheryl Kauffman said…
That is absolutely horrible what your family had to go through, and it is amazing your son handled himself so maturely in court. I work in law enforcement and unfortunately I see a lot of people get treated unfairly.

My almost 12 year old aspie daughter is also fascinated by rockets. She is going to a summer rocket camp at a local college, where they will build model rockets.
Steve Borgman said…
John, I am so glad that, in the end, the justice system worked in Cubby's favor. I'm excited to see what contributions he will be making in the future in terms of the study of the brain.

Abby Hoffman would have appreciated Cubby. Abby Hoffman, though, was not as smart.
I am sorry you guys had to go through this but it will be a good anecdote for Cubby to tell when he gives his Nobel acceptance speech.
Much love from us
Barbara Fischkin and the Mulvaney men
Thomas Thomas said…
thank you for sharing John. I a glad it worked out in the end. it is true that guilt is a matter of motive. a little investigation on the part of the DA would have found that out.

looking forward to your next book. {smile}
gr8m8 said…
Dear Cubby

Do not stop pursuing your intellectial curiosity and special interests. Following your Dad's guidance, safety is always a first concern - always listen to old people as they have experienced this stuff long before you were born! I am glad you had this experience (even though incredibly stupid and wrong), because now you know that important people can be petty and small in pursuing their personal ambitions at the cost of someone like you just trying to learn and figure things out. You did nothing wrong, so follow your curiosity and be proud of the wonderful gift of intelligence. Take care, my family and I wish you all the best.
Ylanne S. said…
As a teen Aspie, and particularly as one wanting to go into the FBI, I'm appalled that this had to happen. There is a mega difference between satisfying curiosity and going out to harm people or destroy property. If I were of voting age, I would vote against this DA come next election. Unfortunately, I'm not yet old enough.
Polly Kahl said…
Hey John, what a mess! Good thing Cubby has you (and his mom and step-mom) as parents to understand what he's been going through and how his brain works. I can't believe how adult he looks compared to the day in NYC when your book debuted at B&N. He's become so articulate and mature, in such a short time. You must be VERY proud of him!
Robin said…
What a terrible waste of time, energy and money!!

Have Cubby check out the Explosives Degree from Missouri S&T at Rolla. It is a awesome program.
Michelle S. said…
Wow! What a story. I am SO sorry everyone had to go through that. It is a horrible waste of time, energy and money. I hope he came through it ok. Unfortunately there will always be people like that DA out there. I'm glad it turned out fine for all of you, except for the stress and time! Unbelieveable!
Kanani said…
Well, more than likely I'd be apt to go after the DA, slap the lawyer with a defamation of character lawsuit (if you can do that. I don't think civil servants can be sued).

Anyway, Cubby handled himself VERY well in the face of both rampant stupidity (100 pounds vs 100 grams?) and evil.

Congratulate the kid for me.
Kathy said…
John, what a relief.
Michelle O'Neil said…
You sure are a great story teller! I was hanging on by a thread the whole time. I'm so glad it went in Cubby's favor.

Arieshoney said…
As a parent of 13yr old Aspie...I worry sometimes that we will encounter something similar. I am so sorry that your family had to endure such stress, and very proud of your son. Those obsessions can be so difficult for these teens to resist, and typically it is for educational gain on their part, thus difficult as a parent to deny.

Kudos to you, your son and his mom, as well as the rest of your family.
Kanani said…
Let it be stated that the prosecutor acted like a real bitch.

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