Ricin letter suspect stuns court, withdraws guilty plea

ricinABERDEEN — James Everett Dutschke is not going easily.

The Mississippi man who pleaded guilty in January to sending poison-laced letters to President Barack Obama and others changed his mind yesterday, asking a judge to withdraw his plea just before sentencing.

U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock did not rule immediately on the request, telling the defense and prosecutors to lay out arguments about whether she should hold Dutschke to his plea, which she repeatedly described as a “contract.”

“Your filing the motion to withdraw does not necessarily mean the court will grant it,” Aycock told Dutschke. “I do want you to understand that your withdrawal is in the discretion of the court.”

Dutschke’s withdrawal came at the end of a hearing meant to determine his sentence on one count of making ricin and three counts of sending it through the mail. His targets were Obama; U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.; and Mississippi judge Sadie Holland. Poisoned letters addressed to Obama and Wicker were intercepted before delivery, but one letter reached Holland. She was not harmed.

Aycock repeatedly rejected arguments from Dutschke’s lawyer, Ken Coghlan, aimed at lessening his sentence. Court officials recommended Dutschke should serve from 20 years to life.

Aycock was about to sentence Dutschke when she let him speak. The former martial arts instructor, animated throughout the hearing, launched a half-hour speech that left Aycock holding her head in her hand. She called a recess so Dutschke could consult with Coghlan. At the end, Dutschke asked to withdraw his plea, possibly setting him up for trial.

Dutschke said federal prosecutors lied when they said he made the poison and about finding his DNA on a dust mask. Dutschke said he was guilty only of using castor beans to make a fertilizer that couldn’t hurt anyone.

“There is no poison, there is no ricin and my DNA was not on that mask,” Dutschke said.

He was so confident that the powder was harmless that he offered prosecutors the “ultimate free shot” at killing him by letting him eat the remaining substance in evidence.

“I will dump the contents of the two remaining letters on a peanut and butter sandwich and eat it and wash it down with a glass of chocolate milk,” said Dutschke, who was eventually cut short by Aycock.

The defendant turned accusations back at Paul Kevin Curtis, the Elvis impersonator and Corinth performer who federal officials originally arrested.

Dutschke also denied guilt on state fondling charges to which he has pleaded guilty. Prosecutors recommended he serve his sentence in the unrelated fondling case at the same time he served any penalty on the federal charges.

While jailed, Dutschke claimed, he was enticed by another inmate to write a letter that federal prosecutors said was evidence he was still trying to frame Curtis.

Curtis has sued Dutschke and is also seeking to sue the federal government over his arrest in the case. Curtis wasn’t present yesterday, but his lawyer was.

“That’s just silly,” said lawyer Christi McCoy, dismissing Dutschke’s claims against Curtis.

Federal prosecutor Chad Lamar said an FBI agent didn’t lie and he did not encourage perjury. Lamar said that while the mask tested negative for one form of DNA, another form was found.

“The defendant is simply mistaken,” Lamar told Aycock. “The mask he threw in the coffee grinder box was the mask that tested positive.”

Lamar argued earlier that the level of poison didn’t matter if Dutschke meant harm, an argument Aycock ruled in favor of.

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