The Florida postal worker who landed a gyrocopter at the U.S. Capitol to protest campaign finance laws rejected a new deal to plead guilty to a felony in the incident, he said Thursday, after prosecutors reopened negotiations in the case.
Douglas Hughes, 61, of Ruskin, Fla., faces six felony and misdemeanor counts after flying his low-powered gyrocopter from Gettysburg, Pa., to the District on April 15. He said he was delivering letters to members of Congress, and has pleaded not guilty.
However, the unusual flight has created an unusual challenge for the U.S. attorney’s office in the District.
Prosecutors said that Hughes’s actions were reckless and endangered his life and others, but have acknowledged that his flight led them to file charges that have rarely if ever gone to trial.
If Hughes were convicted on all counts he would face a sentence of zero to 9
Recently, however, U.S. probation officials reported that Hughes’s flight was unprecedented, and they could not find any applicable case to guide a possible sentencing recommendation to the court.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said at a court hearing Thursday that lack of a similar case would leave her free to decide an appropriate penalty if Hughes is convicted. She added that probation officials said the most comparable offense was trespassing.
Preparations for trial early next year continue. But based on the new information, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tejpal S. Chawla said, “We’ve reinitiated conversations about a plea,” and that the parties spoke several times Wednesday, including once for more than hour.
After the Thursday hearing, Hughes said he rejected prosecutors’ latest offer that he plead guilty to a single felony, saying conviction would restrict his rights, such as his ability to vote or hold office.
“I am not at all optimistic” about reaching a deal, Hughes said.
Prosecutors in July had proposed that Hughes agree to plead guilty to operating his lightweight craft without registration — a felony — and to a misdemeanor count of violating federal airspace. He would have received a 10-month sentence.
Hughes has said his midday flight — while wearing his letter carrier’s uniform aboard what was described as a flying lawn chair powered by a small motor-driven propeller — caused no injuries or damage and was intended to call attention to the corrupting influence of money in politics.
“I didn’t do anything that justifies giving up my rights,” Hughes said Thursday. “I had a purpose for flying here, and I haven’t even started to conclude what I came here for.” The fight has just begun, he said.