There’s no question Ken Olsen of Spokane made a few drops of ricin, one of the world’s most lethal toxins, says the Los Angeles Times. Olsen, a “computer geek” who had no record of violence, said he never intended harm and made the poison just to see if he could. But authorities theorized that he was plotting to kill his wife of 28 years, Carol, to be with a mistress.
The presence of ricin violated federal law. Prosecutors, lacking evidence to charge Olsen with attempted murder, charged him with a little-used law intended for terrorists: possession of a biological agent with the intent to use it as a weapon. At the time of the arrest on June 19, 2002, the nation was recovering from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Anthrax was a new word in the American vernacular, and the U.S. was vigilant for another attack.
FBI agents and bio-terrorism specialists swarmed Olsen’s home. Olsen, 49, became one of only a handful of people convicted of ricin possession. He was sentenced to 13 years and nine months, the stiffest penalty ever imposed for that crime. have formed an unlikely alliance. As Olsen’s lawyers prepare an appeal this month, his wife, mistress, and others protest that Olsen was swept into prison by post-Sept. 11 hysteria and an overzealous Justice Department. Critics question the validity of using federal anti-terrorism statutes to prosecute a local, non-terrorism case – a situation that could arise again and again as police agencies step up efforts against illegal toxins.
The laws used against Olsen, part of the 1989 U.S. Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act, were designed to make it easier to convict terrorists. They require lower standards of proof and, in general, impose harsher sentences. It is an area of law that is largely untested.