A federal judge reluctantly sentenced a former air traffic controller and Tempe activist to two years in prison Monday.
Laro Nicol pleaded guilty in March to possessing a destructive device and unregistered machine gun.
Before imposing the sentence Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Paul G. Rosenblatt criticized the government’s case for relying heavily on statements from "unreliable" informants and all but urged Nicol to withdraw his plea and to take his chances in a jury trial.
"I don’t know if the court can accept this plea of guilty," Rosenblatt said, adding later: "I’ve been a judge for over 30 years. I can say without hesitation that I have never imposed a sentence on a person I believe was innocent. And I will never impose a sentence on a person I believe is innocent."
"The informants didn’t put the unassembled machine gun in Mr. Nicol’s house," assistant U.S. attorney Frederick Battista said.
After speaking briefly with his attorney, Nicol told Rosenblatt that he did not want to risk facing more charges outlined in the original complaint — and stiffer penalties — if he didn’t take the plea and went to trial. Nicol said he didn’t want to be behind bars as his three children grow up.
"By accepting the lesser of two evils, I can get on with my life," Nicol said.
Nicol, a former Phoenix Goodyear Airport air traffic controller, admitted to possessing an explosive device and an unassembled machine gun, and that he had used methamphetamine.
Rosenblatt said his choices were to accept the plea agreement and sentence Nicol accordingly, or to reject it and send the matter to a jury trial.
Rosenblatt also mentioned letters in support of Nicol that tout his contributions to social justice and charity, and others that claim he is being persecuted because of his political leanings.
"They all say that Mr. Nicol is the victim," Rosenblatt said. "This court is not in the practice of sentencing the victim."
Nicol’s attorney, public defender Douglas Passon, said he believes the plea "is in the best interest of justice."
Nicol served 2 1 /2 months in prison after his arrest and was on pretrial release pending his sentencing. Rosenblatt ordered Nicol to surrender to prison by Dec. 1.