Judge Lectures MLK Day Bomber, Gives Maximum 32-Year Sentence

Saying Kevin W. Harpham hasn’t accepted responsibility for planting a potentially deadly bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day unity march in Spokane, Wash., a federal judge on Tuesday sentenced the white supremacist to 32 years in prison.

“I’m distressed that you’re not the least bit apologetic or accepted responsibility,” U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush told the 37-year-old racist bomb builder. “Kevin Harpham,” the judge continued, “you’ve made a terrible mistake by letting your racist prejudices control your actions.”

The federal judge handed down the 32-year prison term after Harpham attempted to withdraw two guilty pleas he entered in September as part of a plea deal to avoid spending his entire life in prison. Under the deal, he faced a sentencing range of 27 to 32 years, and the judge gave him the maximum.

Harpham – a former U.S. Army ordnance technician, a card-carrying member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance and jailhouse pen pal of former Klan leader Glenn Miller – pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and placing that bomb to carry out a hate crime. The case was only the third time the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a federal hate crime charge under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hates Crimes Prevention Act enacted by Congress in October 2009.

After getting sentencing delayed on Nov. 30, Harpham’s federal defender, Roger Peven, told the court on Tuesday that a newly located defense expert believes that the device Harpham built doesn’t meet the legal definition of an “explosive bomb” as he was charged in a grand jury indictment. The defense attorney said he was making an oral motion to allow Harpham to withdraw his two guilty pleas.

The judge listened to the defense arguments, then rejected the last-minute request that would have sent the case to a jury trial next year. Quackenbush said Harpham’s two guilty pleas to avoid life in prison were entered “knowingly and intelligently” and there had been no prior defense “challenges to whether this was an explosive device.”

The judge said federal appeals courts have held that a new expert opinion, developed after the filing of guilty pleas, doesn’t constitute new evidence that would warrant withdrawal of guilty pleas and sending the case to trial.

“I don’t see a basis … at this late date to tell us this was not a bomb,’’ Quackenbush said.

Addressing the court, Harpham later again admitted placing a backpack containing the cannon-like explosive device he built – packed with fishing weights dipped in rat poison to enhance victims’ bleeding – on the route of the Jan. 17 MLK “unity march” in downtown Spokane involving 2,000 participants.

Harpham was in the march, the FBI would later learn, taking pictures of himself and others of a Jewish man and young black children, who investigators said were his intended targets. He planned to set off the device with a remote car starter, with a 1,000 foot range, but police re-routed the march after the suspicious backpack was discovered and later rendered safe by a bomb squad.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington said the improvised explosive device, which met the definition of a “weapon of mass destruction,” was made out of 6-inch steel pipe with a 3-inch bore hole. The steel pipe was welded to a steel base plate, similar to a mortar tube. A model rocket igniter, hooked to two 6-volt lantern batteries, was packed with 100 grams of black powder inside the steel pipe, surrounded by 128 fishing weights dipped in brodifacoum, an anticoagulant and an active ingredient in rat poisons.

“I just want to say that all the evidence … was stacked up against me,” Harpham told the court. “I am not guilty of the act that I pleaded guilty to. I only did so as a hedge.”

Harpham said “when I built this device” he had another intended target, but he didn’t elaborate. “If I was going to hurt a bunch of random people I wouldn’t have placed it outdoors,’’ but rather put it in a crowded building, he said. “Although, I’ll admit it wasn’t exactly legal, either.”

The judge said it was “beyond comprehension” that Harpham was now trying to withdraw his guilty pleas and still refusing to accept responsibility. The judge asked the defendant about his alternative plan.

“As crazy as it sounds,” Harpham said, he intended to place his explosive device in a position to blow the window out of an eyeglass clinic on the parade route and frighten marchers after they passed the location. It would be his way of protesting the “unity and multicultural” theme of the MLK celebration, he said, similar to the way conservative Christians protest gay marriage.

“I would just be making a statement that there are people out there who don’t agree with these ideas,” Harpham told the court.

The judge then asked Harpham about his longstanding involvement with racists, including white supremacists and separatists, and if it started while he was in the Army, when he was caught with a swastika flag in his barracks.

“No, it was a Salvadorian flag,” Harpham responded. But he didn’t respond when the judge asked about another incident in the Army when he was watching a racist demonstration in Washington, D.C., and discussing the Turner Diaries, a novel about a race war in the United States.

“At this stage, for whatever reason it may be, Mr. Harpham, you have not seemed to have accepted responsibility for what you’ve done,” the judge said.

“It is not ‘us-versus-them.’ It’s us, regardless of our skin color, regardless of our religious views, regardless of our cultural differences.

“I hope that in the years ahead, in the next months, maybe years, you’ll pause and reflect that we’re all inhabitants of this one planet, and, yes, we have disagreements.”