New York Times

April 14, 1999

A Federal jury convicted a Virginia couple Tuesday of conspiring to steal
evidence from the wreckage of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 to back up
their theory that the jetliner had been hit by an errant Navy missile. The
defendants, James Sanders, 53, the author of a 1997 book promoting the
theory, and his wife, Elizabeth, 52, a former T.W.A. flight-attendant
instructor, appeared stunned when the jury delivered its verdict after less
than two hours of deliberation. The two were found guilty of conspiracy, as
well as aiding and abetting in the theft of two small strips of
passenger-seat fabric that contained a reddish-orange residue they said was
left by a missile. They each face up to 10 years in prison when sentenced on
July 9, but the assistant United States attorney prosecuting the case, David
B. Pitofsky, said that under Federal sentencing guidelines, they would
probably be sentenced to far less time. As the couple left Federal District
Court here this afternoon, Sanders said: "We were surprised by the verdict
and that the jury rendered it so quickly. It can't help but send a strong and
obvious message to journalists seeking to tell the truth." Mrs. Sanders, who
clutched her husband's hand, said only, "We did nothing wrong." They remain
free, each on $50,000 bail. Sanders's lawyer, J. Bruce Maffeo, said he
planned to appeal, asserting that the court had not adequately addressed his
argument that the couple's actions were protected by the First Amendment.
"This verdict," he said, "has to be a chilling one for any journalist seeking
evidence of the truth." But Floyd Abrams, a constitutional lawyer and First
Amendment expert, said he was doubtful about such grounds for an appeal.
"It's an extremely tenuous First Amendment claim, absent any extraordinary
showing that the prosecution was engaged in the purpose of suppressing the
book or some other purpose," said Abrams, who added that he was stunned to
have received 500 postcards from supporters of the couple. The seven-day
trial drew nearly a dozen conspiracy theorists, who insisted that the
Sanderses were being prosecuted as part of a Government cover-up of the cause
of the crash. In his book, "The Downing of T.W.A. Flight 800," Sanders
contended that tests indicated the reddish-orange substance on the seat
fabric was residue from missile exhaust -- evidence that the plane had been
accidentally fired upon when it exploded only 12 minutes after taking off
from Kennedy International Airport on July 17, 1996. The Government has yet
to determine the cause of the crash, but has rejected the missile theory and
says its tests show that the residue is fabric glue. The Sanderses, who live
in Williamsburg, Va., were charged under a law approved by Congress in 1996,
after the Valujet crash in Florida, that makes it illegal to remove, conceal
or withhold parts of a civilian aircraft involved in an accident. But the
actual theft of the seating material from a Government hangar in Calverton,
N.Y., where the wreckage was being reassembled, was committed by Capt.
Terrell Stacey, a T.W.A. pilot who, like Mrs. Sanders, knew many of the crew
members who were among the 230 people who died in the crash. Captain Stacey
appeared as the chief Government witness against the couple, testifying that
the three of them had conspired to steal the evidence. He told the jury that
Mrs. Sanders had pleaded with him to help provide evidence for her husband's
investigation into the crash. As part of an agreement with prosecutors,
Captain Stacey pleaded guilty to theft of Government property, a misdemeanor.
He faces up to a year in prison, but prosecutors are expected to recommend
leniency when he is sentenced. During the trial, the prosecutor, Pitofsky,
insisted that the case was not about what caused the plane to explode or
about First Amendment rights, but "simply about the theft of wreckage from a
civil aircraft involved in a crash." Judge Joanna Seybert agreed, barring
testimony on those other issues. Pitofsky said today that he doubted that an
appeal on First Amendment grounds would succeed. " Sanders published a book
and no one stopped him from saying whatever he wanted to say," Pitofsky said.
"And the jury understood that no responsible reporter would believe they
could break into a place to get a story." The jurors, with the help of court
officers, left the courthouse by rear exits and drove away without comment.
One juror said as he was getting into his car: "All I want is to get home. We
all agreed that we'd say nothing." Their verdict drew gasps from the
supporters of the Sanderses in the courtroom. "They have been unfairly
persecuted by the Government," said one of their supporters, Howard Mann, an
airplane mechanic and pilot who worked for T.W.A for 40 years, as he waited
for the couple in front of the courthouse. "They were only trying to inform
the American people, and the Government wants it covered up."