No slack expected
for cruise suspect
A U.S. prosecutor says probation
is not enough for her alleged actions
LOS ANGELES >> The lovesick California woman accused of leaving threatening notes aboard a cruise ship headed for Hawaii so she could return to her boyfriend should not expect to receive a sentence as lenient as probation if convicted, according to the federal prosecutor handling her case.
Authorities say Kelley Marie Ferguson, of Laguna Hills, left notes aboard the Legend of the Seas threatening to "kill all Americanos" so the cruise ship would return to California.
"We don't want people threatening to do these kinds of acts," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson in Honolulu, where Ferguson is being held in the Federal Detention Center. "So, obviously there has to be some deterrent effect in the sentence that's passed down."
The 20-year-old woman is charged with two felony counts of threatening acts of terrorism, and faces as much as 10 years in prison.
Authorities say Ferguson, who was vacationing with her family, admitted writing the notes as part of a plan to prevent the cruise ship from continuing on to Hilo. She was arrested Saturday and is scheduled for a detention hearing today.
"Instead of being charged as a terrorist, she should have been charged with being a teenager," her public defender, Pamela Byrne, said earlier this week.
Legal experts say the response to hoax threats has changed drastically since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"She finds herself in a post-9/11 environment where government agencies and responding emergency agencies like police and fire are much more sensitive to the public, so they are going to respond until they confirm the threat is not viable," said James Blancarte, a Los Angeles-based defense attorney.
It is that initial response that may prompt prosecutors to forge ahead with the case, he said yesterday.
"When considering when to prosecute and at what level to prosecute, it's difficult for the prosecutor to ignore the amount of resources sent to respond to the initial perceived threat," Blancarte said. "It's not like answering a false alarm at your house set off by the cat."
The notes Ferguson allegedly left aboard the Legend of the Seas prompted more than 120 members of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force to search the ship for biological, chemical, radiological and explosive weapons.
Blancarte represented a Los Angeles Fire Department captain who was accused of sending his ex-wife's lawyer a threatening letter containing brown powder during the 2001 national anthrax scare. In a pretrial settlement, Christopher Antonio Cooper was placed on probation and allowed to resume his job with the Fire Department, Blancarte said.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that threats are not protected speech, and people who make others feel threatened can be punished under a number of federal and state laws.
Still, he said prosecutors should handle Ferguson's case with common sense, even though the threats drained law enforcement resources and inconvenienced many travelers.
"This seems a crime of immaturity and stupidity, not heinousness," he said.