Three young men who pleaded guilty in an unsuccessful plot to bomb the state Route 82 bridge received harsh prison sentences Tuesday in federal court in Akron.
But U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr. told a team of government prosecutors, in no uncertain terms, that he did not intend to follow their recommendations for much stiffer sentences — 30 years in one instance.
One by one, after Dowd had listened to arguments from both sides in an emotionally charged hearing that lasted 3½ hours, the defendants received the following federal prison terms:
• Alleged ringleader Douglas L. Wright, 27, of Indianapolis, 11½ years (138 months) in prison.
• Brandon L. Baxter, 21, of Lakewood, nine years and nine months (117 months).
• Connor C. Stevens, 20, of Berea, eight years and one month (97 months).
Although Dowd issued an earlier ruling that the sentences could be lengthened greatly by “terrorist enhancement” penalties, he used judicial discretion under what he termed a “downward variance” for each sentence.
And when Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman tried to argue that Baxter should get 25 years, Dowd intervened with a story from his long legal career.
The year was 1982, soon after Dowd had failed in his election bid for a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court (after Gov. Jim Rhodes earlier had appointed him to fill a vacancy). The judge told Herdman about a man who helped him move from the courthouse.
It was the same man, Dowd said, whom he had spared from the electric chair as a member of a three-judge panel in a double-murder case. That man, the judge said, was released from prison after 18 years.
“And you’re telling me,” Dowd said, directing his remarks to Herdman, “that I should send these people to prison for 30 years?”
Dowd ended by saying such a sentence “doesn’t make sense” and that he could not turn his back on his own legal experiences.
No one was injured during the events leading up to the April 30 arrests of the five conspirators. And, Dowd emphasized, the young men were using a fake bomb — bought by an FBI undercover informant the judge described as a “facilitator” in all of the actions and plans of the men.
A fourth defendant, Anthony Hayne of Cleveland, who cooperated with the government in providing testimony, is set for sentencing today.
The last defendant, Joshua S. Stafford, also of Cleveland, is undergoing a court-ordered psychiatric exam.
Dowd let all three defendants and family members address the court Tuesday.
Wright, Baxter and Stevens all apologized to the communities of Cleveland and Akron, and to their families. They also thanked Dowd for the chance to speak, each saying their actions were fueled by heavy drinking and drug use.
According to previous defense testimony, it was the FBI informant — the “CHS” (confidential human source) — who provided money and provoked the conspirators every step of the way.
Both of Stevens’ parents, James and Gail Stevens, lashed out at the government’s actions.
“My son is guilty, and so are you!” James Stevens told federal prosecutor Duncan Brown at one point.
Gail Stevens called her son “my hero,” said she loved him with all her heart and that he never would have acted as he did if not for the informant.
Dowd addressed that assertion, telling the packed courtroom: “I’ve got a bunch of revolutionaries here that don’t support the government and want me to give a low sentence, and indicate that I agree [with revolutionary beliefs]. I don’t,” he said firmly.
Prosecutors said the plot “was meant to convey a message to the civilian population, the corporate world, the financial system, and all levels of government.”
The mandatory minimum sentence under federal guidelines was five years in prison.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at email@example.com.