The Florida postal worker who landed a gyrocopter at the U.S. Capitol to protest campaign finance laws appears to be headed to trial, as prosecutors’ offer of a 10-month prison sentence expired Wednesday, attorneys told a federal judge.
Douglas Hughes, 61, of Ruskin, Fla., appeared Wednesday morning in Washington before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who said, “It appears we’re on a path for trial.”
Hughes faces as much as 9
Prosecutors offered to seek a 10-month prison sentence if Hughes agreed to plead guilty to operating his lightweight craft without registration, a felony, and to a misdemeanor count of violating federal airspace.
But Hughes sought a sentence of less than six months or to serve a portion at home or on community release, Assistant Federal Public Defender Tony W. Miles said.
“Mr. Hughes wants to accept responsibility, but the government is making it very hard to do that,” Miles said.
The hearing came as both sides faced some tough choices. Prosecutors acknowledged that Hughes’s novel act of civil disobedience prompted them to file charges that have rarely gone to trial or in ways never intended.
“Congress obviously did not anticipate a gyrocopter being used in this fashion,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tejpal S. Chawla said, referring to Hughes’s flying machine, which one observer described as a flying lawn chair powered by a small motor-driven propeller. “We are in uncharted territory.”
Hughes said that he wants to continue his fight against special-interest money in politics but that he was fired from the U.S. Postal Service effective July 4, is applying for food stamps and lacks job prospects while under indictment as he and his wife raise a high-school-aged daughter near Tampa.
“They want to lock me up and put me away,” Hughes told reporters after the hearing. But he said there would be two trials — one in court and one involving public opinion.
He said he is hoping for public demonstrations in 100 locations nationwide to protest the revolving door in Washington through which he said more than 400 members of Congress have gone to work as lobbyists, earning millions after leaving office.
Hughes also asked the court for permission to accept money from an unnamed group to hire a lawyer, Mark Goldstone, a First Amendment specialist who has defended people who had engaged in political protests at the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House, and associates of the Occupy D.C. movement.
“If they want to have a circus, I am going to bring the elephants,” Hughes said. “If they get a gag order, I will find a different way to get word out.”
Chawla said prosecutors took no position on the attorney request. But he also said the government considered a longer prison term, warranted because Hughes’s action was reckless and endangered his life and others.
Hughes said that his flight caused no injury or property damage and that he gave himself up peacefully.
“I flew here because it was the only way I could come up with for the average person to be able to fight against billions of dollars of special-interest money that dominate this city,” Hughes said. “It is a ‘necessity’ defense.”