Walter Pierce

Bomb-threat letter writer's conviction reversed

by Walter Pierce

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has reversed the 2004 conviction of Stephen Michael Long, who is serving a 30-year federal prison sentence on 78 federal charges. In reversing the conviction, the three-judge panel cites the trial judge's refusal to allow the jury to consider Long's sanity, or lack thereof.

Long was found guilty of mailing bomb threats and letters containing a white powder to roughly 200 individuals and businesses in the Lafayette area in April 2002, seven months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. No bombs were found, and the powder turned out to be harmless, but the mailings led to several evacuations and no small level of mayhem as many Acadiana residents, like much of the nation, remained rattled by the attacks of the previous year.

Long, 43, did not deny being behind the mailings. According to court records, Long said his intent was to "test the government’s resources, teach people to protect and pay attention to their children, show that criminals frequently go free, and demonstrate that the chaos of 9/11 was easy to create."

At his federal trial Long mounted an insanity defense, arguing that post-9/11 psychological stress fueled his actions. His mother testified to a history of mental illness, including a stint in a mental-health facility at age 13, threats of suicide, sexual abuse as a child, and the belief that the government "communicates through contrails in the sky." A clinical psychologist also testified for the defense, citing a diagnosis of schizotypal personality disorder.

On page two of the 39-page opinion, the 5th Circuit judges in New Orleans render their opinion before justifying it at length: "We address today only Long’s entitlement to a jury determination on insanity, not whether a jury would have or should have found him insane. Satisfied that, as a matter of law, Long presented sufficient evidence to entitle him to have the trial court instruct the jury to determine whether Long was legally insane, we reverse his convictions and remand for further consistent proceedings."

The ruling will not lead to the release of Long, but it does pave the way for a new trial.