In a tiny voice, her eyes downcast like those of a naughty child appearing before the principal, 23-year-old Tonya Harding sought to put the events of the past 10 weeks behind her. "I'm really sorry I interfered," she said to Judge Donald Londer in a Portland courtroom packed with reporters and TV cameras. It was March 16, and Harding was apologizing for committing a Class C felony for "hindering prosecution," part of a plea bargain struck between Multnomah County chief deputy district attorney Norman Frink and Robert Weaver, Harding's lawyer. Her plea put any determination by the legal system of her possible complicity in the Jan. 6 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan on ice forevermore.
Befitting such an extraordinary case, the terms of the deal were unique: Harding was placed on three years' probation, assessed $110,000 in fines and legal fees, sentenced to 500 hours of unspecified community service and forced to resign as a member of the U.S. Figure Skating Association and give up her plans to compete in this week's world championships, in Chiba, Japan—conditions imposed by Frink without consulting the USFSA, whose attempt to hold its own disciplinary hearing has been delayed by a judge's temporary restraining order. As other conditions of her plea, Harding agreed to contribute $50,000 to the Special Olympics and to undergo a psychological evaluation. In return she will spend no time in jail, and she has been assured that neither federal prosecutors nor authorities in Detroit, where the attack on Kerrigan took place during the national championships, will pursue a case against her.
The one question that people most wanted the criminal justice system to address was thus left unanswered: Did Harding help plan the attack on Kerrigan?
Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her former bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, both of whom have admitted being involved in the attack, have alleged that she was in on the scheme, and Frink agrees with them, never mind that he chose not to prosecute her for that offense. A Portland grand jury wasn't buying Harding's denials, either; on Monday it named her as an unindicted co-conspirator in the planning of the assault.
Frink said last week, "In our view the evidence was clear that Harding was involved and participated prior to the assault, and we were prepared to go forward with charges on each and every crime we believed she was culpable for. But it would have been irresponsible to have continued on with a criminal prosecution to try to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she was involved prior to the attack when so much would be accomplished by a plea of guilty. We felt it wasn't in the interest of the citizens of Oregon to go ahead with a lengthy, disruptive and expensive prosecution. We didn't achieve each and every goal of the prosecution, but we did achieve what we believe to be substantial justice."
That assessment didn't wash with many observers of the case, some of whom felt that Frink had cut Harding a sweetheart deal. "When the prosecutor starts talking about balancing budget restrictions with the concerns of citizens, you know he's made a bad bargain," says a veteran Oregon prosecutor. "What Frink is saying now is the typical language we use when we have made an agreement that we are not happy with."
A Portland lawyer who says he had access to at least some of the evidence against Harding adds, "I am surprised that the prosecution did not go forward in a more focused and vigorous way. I'm amazed."
But another Portland lawyer familiar with the case is not surprised, saying, "[The state's] entire case rested on the word of Jeff Gillooly, who comes off as a lying snake. If they had a solid case against Harding, they would have indicted her."
Weaver, who has proved to be more formidable in the courtroom than Harding has ever been on the ice, seconds that opinion: "To conclude that Tonya participated in the plot would require an objective fact finder to embrace Jeff Gillooly's account. Had the government charged her with participation in the assault, I have every confidence she would have been acquitted."
Still, there is circumstantial evidence suggesting that Harding participated in the scheme to injure Kerrigan—enough, obviously, to convince a grand jury. Some of that evidence may be weighed when the USFSA panel finally holds its disciplinary hearing, probably sometime this summer. The panel could act strictly on the basis of Harding's guilty plea—it was, after all, an investigation into an attack on a rival skater that she admitted hindering—and strip her of the national title she won after Kerrigan was knocked out of the competition. Although Harding has resigned as a member, the USFSA might further punish her by banning her for life. The executive committee of the USFSA has also discussed trying to recoup legal expenses and training funds from Harding.