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Homemade Bomber

Depressed college student or terrorist?

By Najeeb Hasan

THE SUICIDE of Al Joseph DeGuzman earlier this month came with surprisingly little fanfare. The De Anza Bomber's arrest, trial and sentencing merited extensive chronicling by the Mercury News, but his death in a Folsom State Prison cell resulted in one front-page story—and that was it. No commentary. No analysis. No what-went-wrong editorials.

Perhaps the most reflective moment in the Merc's extensive coverage of the DeGuzman case came in a June 25 story buried on page 4 of the Valley section, in which DeGuzman attorney Barry Rekoon objected to the 80-year prison sentence his client received. "The law did not drive this case," the Merc quoted Rekoon as saying. "This case was driven by politics and public opinion, and when a case is driven by these two things, the law becomes whatever the judge says it is on any given day."

DeGuzman, as news watchers will recall, was initially handed a seven-year sentence by county judge Robert Ahern, who, using a technicality, dropped 106 of the 108 counts against him. In June, an appeals court ordered Ahern to resentence DeGuzman on the original charges.

The question that the Merc never followed up on was Rekoon's. How much did public opinion (generated primarily by the Merc) affect DeGuzman's sentencing? A lot, according to one county attorney. "DeGuzman died because of the Mercury News," the attorney told Biter matter-of-factly. "The DA's an elected official. Of course he was influenced by the Mercury News."

The Merc did showcase one voice of sanity. In October of 2002, columnist Peter Delevett wrote, "The prospect of this kid facing 99 years for a crime he hadn't committed never quite sat right with me. Perhaps it's because we'll never know for sure what he would have done."

But Delevett's compassion was, in the end, drowned out by the harshest of party lines, best explained in a May 28, 2003, editorial that pushed a bill sponsored by Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) that would have resulted in DeGuzman receiving a harsher sentence (in the end the appeals court did the dirty work).

"Speier's bill addresses a weakness in the law that hamstrings judges, at the expense of public safety," the Mercury News explained. "The next would-be terrorist and wannabe mass killer wouldn't get off as easy as DeGuzman."

In a January 31, 2002, interview with Metro, DeGuzman, then awaiting trial at the Santa Clara County Main Jail, said that he felt "in some ways" he was a victim of media bias. Indeed, DeGuzman's sentencing came against the backdrop of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the thought of serving justice to terrorists across the globe was the rallying cry for the establishment. But, just like in the war on terror or the war on drugs (or any other abstract "war"), the symptoms of the disease get pundits foaming at the mouth, while the roots are ignored completely—until, of course, we're reminded by the next act of violence.

DeGuzman, as Rekoon told the media, was no ordinary kid. He had problems, lots of them. We learned about the antidepressants he took in jail. He wrote that he would probably get caught in his journal, and it was only too obvious that his actions were a cry for help.

"I'm very sad," Rekoon was quoted as saying in the Merc after DeGuzman hung himself. "I'm still carrying some anger about the whole sentencing process, which was way overkill. He was singled out for punishment for a case perceived as to what could have been as opposed to what was. I don't think the court has any basis for that sentence."

In Metro's 2002 interview, DeGuzman said, "I've changed a lot since I've been in jail. When you are in here, you have no passionate response to anything. You lose all feeling."

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the September 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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