San Francisco Chronicle
November 1, 2001


Federal Courts Fortify Sentences for Bioterror


By Henry K. Lee

Charles Lee Redden Jr. should consider himself lucky. Because he threatened to release anthrax at Oakland's federal building two years ago, he won't be subjected to tougher new federal sentences for bioterrorism crimes that go into effect today.

Redden, 32, of Livermore was convicted by a federal jury in Oakland yesterday of making a biological weapons threat in January 1999, which turned out to be a hoax. When he is sentenced in January, he will face a softer sentence than someone who does the same thing now.

Under the new rules, terrorists convicted of actually sending anthrax or any biological or chemical agent through the mail could face 30 years to life in prison, compared with a maximum of 17 1/2 years under the old rules.

And people like Redden who threaten such crimes could also face stiffer sentences under guidelines pertaining to terrorism.

The revised guidelines, in the works months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, come two weeks after Attorney General John Ashcroft warned that those who stage anthrax hoaxes will be prosecuted. The new rules were submitted by the seven-member U.S. Sentencing Commission, after the Justice Department noticed gaps for bioterrorism crimes.

The impetus was a 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway, which killed 12 people. The commission was also mindful of cases in the United States in which defendants who possessed bubonic plague or ricin -- a toxin twice as lethal as the deadliest cobra venom -- served no more than 10 years in prison under sentencing guidelines pertaining to firearms or hazardous substances.

"With the new amendment in place, judges faced with these types of offenders will be empowered to impose life sentences, should they so determine, " said Judge Diana E. Murphy of Minneapolis, chair of the commission.

Members of Congress think the tougher sentences are appropriate in light of recent anthrax scares.

"I haven't heard any controversy, certainly given the environment that exists right now," Jeff Lungren, House Judiciary Committee spokesman, said yesterday.

The number of threats to use biological weapons jumped from 37 in 1996 to more than 250 in 1999, according to the FBI.

Last week, Michael Christopher Murphy, 19, of Arcata was among the latest to be charged with an anthrax hoax, for sending a birthday card to a relative in Fresno with "Anthrax" written on the envelope.

In Oakland, Redden was indicted by a federal grand jury last year on charges that he threatened, in numerous phone calls to court clerks, to release anthrax into the air-conditioning system of the federal building. Investigators traced the calls to the Alameda County jail in Oakland.

Redden, who acted as his own lawyer, said the government failed to prove that he made the calls, given that the cordless phone that was used could have been handled by other inmates.

Copyright 2001, San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved.

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