Judge Rejects Accused Arsonist's Autism Defense

William Cottrell, 24, might want to think about hiring new lawyers as his current ones continue to strike out. Cottrell, you might remember, is accused of setting fire to more than 100 SUVs at a California dealership — a crime which could put land him in jail for 35 years if convicted.

Originally, his lawyers tried to argue that arson was not, per se, a violent crime, but the judge smacked down that argument in August. Next, his lawyers tried a novel theory — they wanted to offer as a defense that Cottrell’s autism made it difficult for him to understand the consequences of his actions and made it difficult for him to resist the entreaties of his alleged accomplices, Tyler Johnson and Michie Oe, who remain fugitives.

But on November 12, U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner ruled that Cottrell’s legal team could not use his autism as part of his defense.

Things are not looking to good for Cottrell as he apparently couldn’t shut up about his participation in the arson. Caltech student Claire Jacobs testified that Cottrell told her he agreed to participate in defacing the SUVs, but was unaware that the plan was to firebomb the SUVs. Prosecutors, however, apparently have a witness who will testify that Cottrell said he helped fill detergent bottles with gasoline which were used to ignite the vehicles.

Cottrell should look on the positive side — if he does end up spending decades in prison, at least he’ll have the sort of well-structured environment he seem to need.


Judge blocks autism defense in SoCal SUV arson case. Associated Press, November 12, 2004.

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