Erica Chase has changed since she was convicted of plotting with white supremacist Leo Felton to blow up African-American or Jewish landmarks around Boston in 2001 and sent to prison for nearly five years, she told a judge yesterday.
She got a job after finishing her sentence last year, took college courses on architecture, developed a romance with a Jamaican man, and gave birth to a biracial daughter in September.
But yesterday, Chase, 27, was back in federal court to be resentenced after an appeals court reinstated a gun conviction against her and Felton, exposing each of them to up to a potential five more years in prison.
“I was silly, my whole way of thinking, when I was 21,” Chase told the judge, adding that every day she spent in prison helped her turn her life around. Later, outside the courtroom, she said she’d known Felton for only 10 days before her arrest and that her crimes “had more to do with the crowd I was hanging around with than what I really felt.”
Citing a “profound change” in Chase, US District Judge Nancy Gertner ordered Chase back to prison for three more months, saying “it simply makes no sense” to give her a lengthy sentence.
When Felton, 36, appeared in court during a separate hearing yesterday, Gertner added another five years to his previous sentence of 21 years and 10 months.
During an emotional appeal, Felton, the son of a white mother and African-American father, said he developed his neo-Nazi views in racially divisive prisons while being incarcerated at age 19 for assault. But, he said, he’s abandoned his white supremacist views since rekindling a bond with his half-brothers and half-sisters who are African-American.
But Gertner said that while she recognized that Felton had changed, it wasn’t the kind of major life change she saw in Chase.
“These are offenses that are so bad and so frightening and so dangerous that it takes an extraordinary change to make a difference,” Gertner said.
The judge also said that while Felton, who had been institutionalized by his mother when he was 10, explained what had gone wrong in his life, he hadn’t expressed much remorse to the people who would have been victimized by his plot to ignite a “racial holy war.”
Felton, the self-proclaimed leader of the terror cell called “Aryan Unit One,” along with Chase had bought materials to make a fertilizer bomb like the one used in Oklahoma City in 1995. He also robbed a Back Bay bank.
“I’m certainly glad it didn’t happen,” Felton said in response to the judge’s question about whether he ever thought of the havoc he might have wreaked. “This could have been disastrous, but at the same time, the fact is, nothing did happen. Nobody received so much as a bloody nose in this case.”
Felton’s half-sister, Leslie, who is African-American, also made an emotional appeal yesterday, telling the judge that her brother had been abandoned by his father and mother. Vowing to stand by him, she said, “He needs someone to forgive him and love him.”
Assistant US Attorney S. Theodore Merritt, who had urged the judge to order Chase and Felton to each spend five more years in prison, said they were involved in a terrorist plot.
He said Felton “did want to cause death and destruction to blacks and Jews so it would eventually change the world and this country.”
There was testimony during the 2002 trial that Felton planned to target some Boston landmarks, though it was unclear which ones, as well as the US Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Chase seemed to experience a moment of panic yesterday when she discovered that she would be taken into custody as soon as the sentence was imposed. But the judge agreed not to impose the sentence until Jan. 4 after Chase explained that she lived in Philadelphia with her 3-month-old daughter, Antoinette, and needed to make arrangements for a friend to care for the baby while she’s in prison.
Chase, who grew up on Cape Cod, said she was 13 when her mother died of cancer and her life spiraled downward. She said she was hanging out in Kenmore Square with neo-Nazis when she was asked to help Felton, who was getting out of prison and moving to Boston.
“He was like a crazy person saying things,” said Chase, adding that she was young and immature and up until her arrest in April 2001 didn’t believe Felton would carry out his threats because “everything seemed so abstract.”
It was the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that “put a dose of reality in my situation,” said Chase, recalling how she watched the death and destruction caused by the terrorists and thought, “What the hell is wrong with these people?”
And then, she said she realized, “People must be thinking that about me.”
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