In a packed courtroom Monday, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Chief Justice Richard Roberts ordered that Daniel Milzman (COL ’16), who was arrested after making ricin in his McCarthy Hall dorm room March 18, remain in D.C. jail pending trial.
Roberts’ ruling, that Milzman be detained and placed under “rigorous suicide watch,” overturned Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola’s ruling last week that Milzman be released into his parents’ care to pursue psychiatric treatment for two weeks at Sibley Memorial Hospital pending trial. Facciola’s ruling came before Roberts after an appeal by the U.S. government, which is prosecuting the case.
According to the judge, the nature and circumstances of the event suggested that Milzman, who is charged with possession of a biological toxin, be detained. The judge elucidated three possibilities for Milzman’s use of the ricin he produced: an act of suicide, use on another person or use on multiple targets.
Milzman’s attorney, Danny Onorato, had argued that Milzman produced the ricin for the sole purpose of committing suicide without his parents’ knowledge, as ricin mimics flu-like symptoms when it causes death. Onorato also cited Milzman’s lack of a prior criminal history and his record at Georgetown, as well as Milzman’s parents’ status as doctors, in his defense.
Roberts acknowledged that Milzman’s history and character did not weigh in favor of detention. However, he cited other factors in the case as shaping his decision to mandate detention.
One of these factors was threatening Facebook messages Milzman sent to another undergraduate in January, which Assistant U.S. Attorney Maia Miller read in court in front of both Facciola and Roberts. Onorato emphasized that the messages were part of a larger exchange between the two students that had since been settled.
Roberts also referenced the prosecution’s point that Milzman’s varied claims as to when he produced the ricin hurt his credibility, providing different time frames for the residential assistant and law enforcement officers, respectively.
Roberts also expressed concern about the quantity of ricin produced, which he said “could have killed someone ingesting it.” Law enforcement seized 123 milligrams of a white powdery substance March 18, within which the concentration of ricin was 7.7 micrograms per milligram.
Based on these factors, Roberts concluded there was probable cause that Milzman could pose a danger to others. Milzman’s defense rested on the argument that since he intended to commit suicide with the ricin, he was only a threat to himself and not to others, permitting his release to treatment and his parents’ care.
Abbe Smith, director of the Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Program at the Georgetown University Law Center, disagreed with Roberts’ order.
“It seems to me to be motivated by punishment and not necessarily by the kind of criteria that are supposed to be considered for detention versus release. It’s punitive based on the nature of the charge,” Smith said. “He’s a sophomore in college, he’s a kid. We are too quick in this country to put people in jail. It shows a lack of imagination and compassion to think that jail is the only appropriate place for this particular young man.”
Joe Laposata (COL ’16), an acquaintance of Milzman, expressed continued shock at the way in which the events of the past few weeks have unfolded.
“For those of us who knew him here, the whole ordeal is so shocking that individual events just feel less shocking. I don’t know how to react to an appeal decision that’s changed. At this point, it’s still completely out of the blue,” Laposata said.
The hearing, which was attended by over 90 people, including several Georgetown students, staff and colleagues of Milzman’s father, Dave Milzman, who is research director in the Department of Emergency Medicine at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, lasted approximately 20 minutes.
Will Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said in an email that the office had no comment beyond what was stated in court and that the investigation will continue pending further court proceedings.
Milzman’s lawyer, Danny Onorato, did not respond to requests for comment.