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High court to hear case of woman convicted of chemical weapon crimes

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
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Sex, lies, and chemical weapons
  • Carol Anne Laletta Bond was furious at her husband and his lover, who was pregnant
  • A decision in the case could establish precedents regarding the 10th Amendment
  • Bond's lawyers say the chemical weapon statute is overly broad

Washington (CNN) -- Soap opera or terror thriller? Carol Anne Laletta Bond's story cannot be both, and now it may be left to the Supreme Court to sort out the dramatic and often confounding facts of this convicted felon's appeal. Put simply, we'll call it "The Case of the Poisoned Paramour."

At issue is whether Bond has a right -- called "standing" -- to challenge her federal prosecution and argue that it should have been handled in state courts. Oral arguments in the case will be heard by the justices Tuesday.

The implications go far beyond this case, and could establish important precedents on the strength and purpose of the Constitution's 10th Amendment, which limits federal authority. It is also an issue roiling the current political debate, especially among Tea Party conservatives in this post-9/11, security-conscious environment.

The case, which barely made a ripple in local media, had been all but ignored until the high court stepped in last October and agreed to accept it. Bond, a native of Barbados, lived outside Philadelphia and worked as a microbiologist. As a federal appeals court succinctly summarized the relevant facts in the case: "Bond was excited when her closest friend, Myrlinda Haynes, announced she was pregnant. Bond's excitement turned to rage when she learned that her husband, Clifford Bond, was the child's father. She vowed revenge."

Bond -- known to her family as Betty -- struck back by putting her science training to ill use. The 40-year-old stole dangerous chemicals -- arsenic-based 10-chloro-10H-phenoxarsine, to be exact -- from her company, and also obtained potassium dichromate over the internet. Both substances in heavy doses can cause toxic, even lethal harm with very little physical contact. She then tried to poison Haynes some two dozen times over several months, secretly sprinkling the chemicals on an apartment doorknob, car door handles and a mailbox.

While she suffered no more than a chemical burn on her thumb, Haynes noticed something was amiss -- one of the chemicals is a bright orange powder -- and called local police in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, who merely suggested she just wipe her car and doors regularly. Unhappy with that response, Haynes contacted her local mail carrier, and federal postal inspectors quickly jumped into the mystery. Surveillance cameras were set up and sure enough, Bond was videotaped stealing mail and placing chemicals inside the mailbox and car muffler, court records show. She was soon arrested.

Her lawyer says Bond admitted her guilt early on in what they considered a domestic dispute involving a woman emotionally traumatized by the betrayal of two people once very close to her.

"I didn't think that the federal government had any role to be in this case and I tried to convince them not to bring the case or just dismiss the charges," said Robert Goldman, Bond's defense attorney. "And I promised them in writing that we would go over to county court and plead and let her do her jail time in county court. I tried to convince them that by misapplying the law they could jeopardize the statute even surviving the case. But they decided to go ahead and bring these charges."

Bond claimed she never meant to kill Haynes, but only wanted to cause her "an uncomfortable rash." The defendant also said her friend's betrayal caused an "emotional breakdown" that made her act in such a shocking fashion.

Instead of being charged with simple assault, which may have gotten her six months to a year or two in state prison, Bond was indicted in federal court on two counts of mail fraud and the bombshell: two counts of violating a federal law and international treaty for the possession and use of "chemical weapons."

Her lawyers say such charges would typically involve terrorists and rogue states engaged in chemical warfare, not someone on the wrong end of a love triangle.

"The statute itself is so broad as ... to be meaningless," said Goldman. "It prohibits the use of any chemical weapon. And what's a chemical weapon? It's any object, any item that has toxic chemicals. If in the case of an angry spouse throwing a can of Ajax [a bleach-based cleaner] at his wife, or vice versa, that would be considered to be use of a chemical weapon and the terrorism statute would apply. I can't imagine that the people that were involved in the treaty, you know, would anticipate such a broad application."

When a judge denied her motions to transfer the case to state court, Bond pleaded guilty and immediately appealed. She received a sentence of six years behind bars and nearly $12,000 in fines and restitution. She is serving her time in a federal prison in West Virginia, and could be released as early as next year.

An appeals court ultimately rejected her claims, concluding that as an individual, Bond could not challenge her federal prosecution. "A private party lacks standing to claim that the federal government is impinging on state sovereignty in violation of the 10th Amendment, absent the involvement of a state or its officers," said the three-judge panel. "Law enforcement personnel legally obtained the evidence that led to her indictment" and she was "appropriately punished."

The strange case took an even stranger turn when the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in. After first adamantly claiming Bond had no right to appeal, the Justice Department reversed course.

"The government confessed error in this case, which it does relatively rarely," said appellate attorney Paul Clement, who will argue the case before the justices. Justice Department lawyers "decided that was really not a position they wanted to defend, and they came around and they will actually be sitting at the counsel table with me, joining me in the argument that Ms. Bond has standing."

But the Obama administration still believes Bond's federal conviction was valid.

Since both sides now agree the standing issue was improperly handled, the justices had to appoint an outside private attorney to argue what the government had originally claimed. Stephen McAllister, an experienced lawyer and onetime law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, was given the tough assignment.

Given all that, the high court had the discretion months ago of summarily tossing out the lower court ruling, and giving Bond an immediate legal victory. Many legal experts wondered why the justices instead scheduled oral arguments. A written ruling will likely be issued by June.

Conservatives see hope that the majority right-leaning bench might use the opportunity to delve further into Act Two of this legal drama -- the scope of the 10th Amendment -- which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

In the broader political context, conservatives, along with a healthy mix of liberals and libertarians, worry that the federal government and Congress have been overly aggressive in staking claims to disputes they believe are best left to states, especially in the criminal arena.

Many scholars and activists argue that some federal prosecutions are novel and the penalties are often more harsh, creating conflict and confusion with local efforts to ensure public safety. They see Bond as an unexpected hero in that fight to return "the power back to the people."

"There's a concern that a number of people have, really across the political spectrum, that we have over-federalized crime, that it is too easy for Congress to pass a new law," said Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general under President George W. Bush. "There is some outrage in America when politicians pass a law to create a new federal offense, without people stopping and thinking whether that's something that local law enforcement can deal with. And if the defendants who are prosecuted under these statutes can't raise any objection, don't even have standing to object, that's certainly going to make it easier for that federalization of crime to continue."

And it's not just felonies. Areas like gun ownership, zoning laws, environmental regulations, taxation, health care, and education standards all could be re-examined in the wake of a high court decision.

Bond declined an interview with CNN. But her lawyer says her husband is supporting her in the legal fight. The couple is trying to overcome his infidelity and has been working to rebuild their shaky marriage. She has even allowed him to visit her in prison.

The case is Bond v. U.S. (09-1227).

CNN's Mary Snow and Meghan Rafferty contributed to this report.