Judge rejects plea deals for couple in undersea spy case

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Tuesday threw out plea deals for a Maryland couple who tried to sell submarine secrets to a foreign coun...

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Tuesday threw out plea deals for a Maryland couple who tried to sell submarine secrets to a foreign country, saying the prison sentence for one of the defendants was less than that received by some low-level drug traffickers.

The couple, jonathan and Diana Toebbeinitially pleaded guilty in February to the charges they participated in a conspiracy to sell underwater secrets. Their plot had begun to unravel almost as soon as they set it in motion, when Brazilian intelligence officials turned themselves in to the FBI. a letter the couple wrote anonymously in 2020, offering to sell nuclear secrets. The disclosure began a long effort to learn the couple’s identities and recover the secrets they stole.

Mr. Toebbe had agreed to a deal that would send him to prison for 12 years, while Ms. Toebbe had agreed to serve three years, which would likely have freed her in two years.

The judge’s decision forced the Toebbes to withdraw their pleas, and Judge Gina M. Groh of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia set a trial date for January. Lawyers will now have to see if they can reach a new plea deal that Judge Groh could accept or continue with the trial.

In her comments, Justice Groh suggested she would only agree to an agreement within the sentencing guidelines. This likely means that Mr. and Mrs. Toebbe face a prison sentence of more than 15 years. Such a long sentence could prompt Ms Toebbe to go to trial to see if a jury would acquit her.

The case has captivated more than one. It combined the spy book craft the couple tried to use, memory cards hidden in peanut butter sandwiches, gum wraps and band-aid boxeswith the constraints of suburban life, such as frantic search for babysitters so they can drop dead.

Credit…West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility, via Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

But the case also raised questions about why a couple with a comfortable life in a middle-class neighborhood of Annapolis, Maryland., would risk everything to try to sell secrets to a foreign government. In court, a lawyer for Ms Toebbe referred to personal difficulties she faced, without giving further details.

Even as Tuesday’s hearing began, Judge Groh expressed skepticism about the plea deals, suggesting the deal would get Ms Toebbe out of jail far too soon.

Judge Groh said Ms Toebbe’s crime had made her “a criminal of the worst kind, which is why the 36 months trouble me”.

“There are lower level drug dealers who go to jail for well over 36 months,” the judge said.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys argued that the settlements reached were fair. In Ms Toebbe’s case, she would never be able to work as a teacher and would be separated from her children for a long time.

“It will be someone who will live the rest of their life with this scarlet letter on them,” said Barry P. Beck, lawyer for Ms Toebbe.

Prosecutors noted that Mr. Toebbe, who had been trained in both nuclear propulsion and handling classified data, bore the bulk of the blame. But they added that he cooperated with the Navy’s efforts to do a damage assessment and that the information he passed on was classified only as confidential, not secret or top secret.

“His cooperation after the plea was substantial, very substantial,” said Jarod J. Douglas, an assistant United States attorney. “It was essential for a broader assessment of the conduct of the defendants that we may never have known. The navy would never have known what his conduct was and what his scope was without his cooperation.

But Judge Groh was not convinced. After a pause, she read an impact statement submitted by Vice Admiral William Houston of the Navy which described the damage the Toebbes had caused to the submarine fleet and to national security.

“The nation has spent billions of dollars developing naval nuclear propulsion technology,” Judge Groh said, reading the statement. “Mr. Toebbe’s actions have compromised the integrity of this protected information, undermining the military advantage provided by decades of research and development.

The information Mr. Toebbe stole from the navy, the statement said, could give foreign navies the opportunity to close the gap with the United States, which would take extraordinary effort and resources to restore.

After the hearing, Edward B. MacMahon, an attorney for Ms Toebbe, said the defense would get back to work on the case.

“We thought this plea represented a fair resolution to the case and we are disappointed the judge did not accept it,” Mr MacMahon said.

Evidence presented earlier in the trial showed that Mr. Toebbe grappling with questions about which country to approach, Mrs. Toebbe having fewer scruples.

Ms. Toebbe, secondary school teacher with a doctorate. in archaeology, had been deeply critical of President Donald J. Trump and had openly considered leaving the United States, former students said. But Ms Toebbe’s defense attorneys noted that a distaste for Mr Trump or the state of US politics was not unusual.

The US government has never acknowledged which country the couple approached, as it has tried to keep many details – including how Mr Toebbe stole secrets from the US Navy Yard in Washington – out of the court record.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Judge rejects plea deals for couple in undersea spy case
Judge rejects plea deals for couple in undersea spy case
Newsrust - US Top News
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