WASHINGTON - In a setback for the Justice Department yesterday, a federal jury spared attempted spy Brian Patrick Regan the death penalty for his role in trying to sell "vital secrets" to the governments of China and Iraq.
Regan, 40, was convicted last Thursday of attempted espionage in the first U.S. spy trial in a half-century that could have resulted in an execution.
For that penalty to be imposed, jurors had to also find that he provided specified military secrets to Iraq.
Yesterday, they determined that Regan had not offered Iraq documents related to nuclear weaponry, military satellites, war plans or other U.S. weapons systems.
If they had found otherwise, the retired Air Force master sergeant could have become the first spy to be ordered sent to death since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair in 1953 for passing secrets to the Soviet Union.
Justice Department officials had no comment.
One legal expert said the verdict was a rebuke to a Justice Department that has been trying, under Attorney General John Ashcroft, to secure the death penalty in cases that do not merit such a serious sentence.
"This Justice Department has been pushing the death penalty in almost all espionage and terrorism cases, and, in terms of espionage, Regan represented the weakest case the government has brought," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor.
"His efforts bordered on the comical, like someone learning his trade from bad spy novels," said Turley, who has represented defendants in several espionage and national security cases in recent years.
"This was an extremely clumsy and unhinged individual groping his way toward espionage, a spy-wannabe, so this is a credit to the jury that they were able to discern the lines here."
Regan, a heavily indebted former intelligence analyst, was arrested in August 2001 at the Dulles International Airport outside Washington with the coded coordinates of Iraqi and Chinese missile sites and the addresses of the Iraqi and Chinese embassies in Switzerland hidden in his right shoe.
A married father of four from Bowie, Prince George's County, Regan was accused of offering satellite secrets to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and others for more than $13 million in Swiss currency.
It was one of the first times in decades in which the government pressed for a trial in an espionage case. Normally averse to any public discussion of national security matters, the government typically enters into a plea agreement with such defendants instead.
It was also unusual for the government to seek the death penalty in an espionage case - particularly one in which the accused wasn't even charged with actually passing classified information to a hostile government.
In seeking the death penalty against Regan, Ashcroft said his "attempts to sell our national security were a direct violation of his repeated oaths to protect and defend the United States of America, its Constitution and its national security secrets."
Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.