The defense said it was just a case of "cookies and candy bars."
But the federal prosecutor said it involved far more than that: "the integrity of the U.S. mail and the sanctity of the seal" on mail entrusted to the Postal Service.
Whatever it was, a jury in federal court here tonight convicted two U.S. Postal workers of destroying mail, that is, eating some chocolate chip cookies and part of a candy bar taken from two damaged parcels they were supposed to be repairing at Baltimore's main Post Office.
"They ate the mail," prosecutor Glenda G. Gordon told reporters, adding later, "This is not funny . . . . I use the mail. There are privacy issues here."
The defendants, Norman Edward Wilson, 59, and William Earl Ferguson, 44, both of Baltimore, face a possible maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100 fine each.
The two-day misdemeanor trial before U.S. Magistrate Daniel E. Klein Jr. pitted an array of three postal inspectors and their videotape surveillance equipment against the two employes.
The two men, currently suspended from their jobs, were assigned last September to the night shift in the "rewrap section" of the Post Office where they patched up damaged packages and torn envelopes coming through the facility.
Inspectors testified that at 2 a.m. last Sept. 17, using binoculars and a video camera hidden in a "lookout gallery" above the work floor, they observed Ferguson open a tin from a damaged parcel and devour a small but undetermined number of chocolate chip cookies that were inside and pass others to Wilson, his work partner.
Later, they said, Ferguson pried open another damaged parcel--this one a "decoy" package of KitKat candy bars planted by inspectors. They said Ferguson removed one of the candy bars and Wilson later picked it up and ate a portion of it, leaving the remainder secreted in an envelope.
Inspectors said they then entered the work floor and led the two employes away, charging them with destruction of U.S. mail.
To bolster their case, the inspectors produced a 30-minute, full-color videotape for the jury, showing Ferguson and Wilson chewing contentedly from time to time on items taken from the packages.
For their part, Ferguson and Wilson admitted eating the food but said they meant no harm.
"I just wasn't thinking," said Ferguson. Wilson said he thought the cookies and candy were "munchies" Ferguson had brought from home to share with him and were therefore not U.S. mail.
In addition, defense attorney Paul Spence noted that Ferguson examined a second "decoy" package that night--one containing a mint set of U.S. Bicentennial coins and several silver dollars--but sealed it up and sent it on its way without taking anything.
Earlier, in pretrial hearings, another magistrate threw out defense claims that the extensive surveillance of postal employes is an invasion of privacy. Prosecutors argued that employes know they are under surveillance in a large public area and thus have no expectation of privacy. Also, "decoy" or "test" packages do not constitute entrapment, prosecutors said, because they do not amount to an active inducement to violate the law.