Atkinson was charged last year with sending a graphic threat to lawyer Mark Zaid, who was representing a CIA analyst who had made allegations that fueled the inquiry that led to former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. Atkinson sent the email in November 2019, after Trump held up Zaid’s photo and read some of the attorney’s tweets during a rally.
During the brief sentencing hearing in Bay City, Mich., Ludington said he was impressed with changes Atkinson has made in his life in the past year or so, but the “stark and brutal” nature of the message he sent Zaid could not be ignored.
“We cannot in that assessment lose track of the exact communication that Mr. Atkinson authored and delivered to the victim in this set of circumstances,” said Ludington, an appointee of former President George W. Bush.
Ludington went on to read aloud the message Atkinson sent.
“All traitors must die miserable deaths. Those that represent traitors shall meet the same fate, we will hunt you down and bleed you out like the pigs you are. We have nothing but time and you are running out of it. Keep looking over your shoulder … We are all strangers in a crowd to you. The next move is yours.”
Ludington also questioned Atkinson directly about why he sent an email containing such extreme language.
“The language in that email was more than disconcerting. Can you explain how it occurred to you to do that?” the judge asked.
“Honestly, I can’t tell you how it occurred to me to do that,” Atkinson said. “I was in a dark place,” he added, citing drug use and mental health issues.
Attorney Mark Zaid, right, speaks about an unfair competition lawsuit against President Donald Trump, on March 9, 2017 in Washington, D.C. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Atkinson also apologized to Zaid, although his name wasn’t mentioned at the hearing. “I would like to apologize to the victim and his family for any problems I may have caused him,” Atkinson said.
A lawyer for Atkinson, Donald Neville, seemed to concede that his client’s actions were driven by his political views.
“He had some firmly held political beliefs,” Neville said. “He thought, siting behind the computer, sending that message was somehow the right thing to do.”
Neville said Atkinson made “completely stupid and horrible decisions” due to various issues in his life. The attorney called Atkinson’s arrest “a blessing in disguise.”
Neville asked that Atkinson be sentenced to 12 months in prison, with six months of that time in home confinement, but the judge sided with prosecutors who sought a 12-month prison term. The judge also ordered Atkinson, who has been on pretrial release since last August, immediately taken into custody.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Vance said the email had serious real-world consequences.
“This is a serious offense that significantly impacted the victim, his family, friends and colleagues,” Vance said.
Zaid also submitted a letter to the court detailing the way the threat upset his life. “I have handled many high-profile cases on both sides of political ideology in the nearly thirty years I have practiced law, but never before had I received such a personal vile threat,” wrote Zaid, who has represented POLITICO reporters in Freedom of Information Act cases.
“It was unnerving, troubling and frankly quite scary … This was a blatant attempt at overt intimidation in the worst kind.”
Zaid also said he considers Trump and prominent conservative figures “personally responsible for fomenting the climate that led to Mr. Atkinson’s conduct.” Asked about the sentence, Zaid said he was glad that justice was carried out.
“I am pleased to see that the rule of law prevailed with the Court’s sentencing today of an individual who threatened my life because I represented a whistleblower whose lawful disclosure led to President Trump’s impeachment. No lawyer or whistleblower should ever be subjected to this type of unacceptable behavior simply for doing the right thing or their job,” Zaid said in an email to POLITICO. “I hope this outcome will somehow help restore some level of civility to our society.”