The U.S. Capitol Police officer who made a practical joke about anthrax when the government's mail service was nearly paralyzed by fears of the deadly poison was sentenced to two years' probation yesterday by a federal judge, a move that could end his law enforcement career.
But U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson suspended the sentence while James J. Pickett appeals his conviction, meaning that the officer will not yet have to report to a probation officer. A spokesman for the Capitol Police said Pickett will remain on leave without pay pending an administrative hearing on his dismissal.
Eli Gottesdiener, Pickett's attorney, requested the suspended sentence after learning from Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer that Pickett would be fired upon sentencing, he said during the hearing.
"The imposition of the sentence will end the career of a 14-year veteran who loves his job and is universally admired," Gottesdiener said after the hearing. "This was a momentary lapse in judgment."
Pickett made the practical joke Nov. 7, 2001, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent deadly mailings of anthrax to several news media outlets and to prominent members of Congress. Five people were killed.
On afternoon duty in a tunnel connecting the House of Representatives with the Capitol, Pickett acknowledged that he opened a packet of artificial sweetener, spilled it onto a desk and left this note: "PLEASE INHALE. YES THIS COULD BE? CALL YOUR DOCTOR FOR FLU SYMPTOMS. THIS IS A CAPITOL POLICE TRAINING EXERCIZE! I HOPE YOU PASS!"
The note, found by a colleague, was quickly dismissed as a joke. Pickett, 37, prosecuted as one of a number of anthrax hoaxes across the country, was convicted by a jury in November of making false statements in writing the note.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Schmidt asked Jackson yesterday to impose a $10,000 fine and to order Pickett to serve 430 hours of community service. She said those terms would offset the $14,000 and 430 work hours police spent investigating the case.
Jackson, who said he believed Pickett made false statements while under oath during the trial, declined to follow the prosecutor's recommendation. He said that Pickett's testimony did not amount to perjury and that two years of probation and 200 hours of community service were sufficient.
Pickett, who works as a newspaper deliveryman, briefly addressed the judge. "I would like to say I'm sorry to you, to the government, to my probation officer and to my family," he said.