WASHINGTON — A federal judge Tuesday threw out the plea agreements for a Maryland couple who had tried to sell submarine secrets to a foreign country, arguing that the prison time for one of the defendants was less than some low-level drug dealers receive.
The couple, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, originally pleaded guilty in February to charges that they took part in a conspiracy to sell submarine secrets. Their plot had started to unravel almost as soon as they put it in motion, when Brazilian intelligence officials turned over to the FBI a letter the couple had anonymously written in 2020, offering to sell nuclear secrets. The disclosure began a lengthy effort to learn the couple’s identity and retrieve the secrets they stole.
Jonathan Toebbe had agreed to a deal that would send him to prison for 12 years, while Diana Toebbe agreed to serve three years, which would have likely freed her in two years.
The judge’s decision forced the Toebbes to withdraw their pleas, and Judge Gina Groh of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia set a trial date for January. Lawyers will now have to see if they can reach a new plea agreement that Groh might accept or continue to trial.
In her comments, Groh suggested that she would only accept a deal within the sentencing guidelines. That is likely to mean that both Jonathan and Diana Toebbe would face prison time of more than 15 years. A sentence that long could prompt Diana Toebbe to go to trial to see if a jury would acquit her.
The case captivated many. It combined spy book tradecraft the couple tried to use, such as memory cards hidden in peanut butter sandwiches, gum wrappers and Band-Aid boxes, with the strains of suburban life, like frantic searches for babysitters so they could make a dead drop.
But the case also raised questions about why a couple with a comfortable life in a middle-class neighborhood of Annapolis, Maryland, would risk everything to try to sell secrets to a foreign government. In court, a lawyer for Diana Toebbe referred to personal difficulties with which she had to grapple, without elaborating further.
Even as the Tuesday hearing began, Groh expressed skepticism about the plea deals, suggesting that the agreement would let Diana Toebbe out of prison far too soon.
Groh said Diana Toebbe’s crime made her “a felon of the worst kind; that is why the 36 months troubles me.”
“There are lower-level drug dealers that go to prison for way longer than 36 months,” the judge said.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers argued that the plea deals were fair. In Diana Toebbe’s case, she would never be able to work as a teacher and would be long separated from her children.
“She will be someone who will live the rest of her life with this scarlet letter on her,” said Barry P. Beck, a lawyer for Diana Toebbe.
Prosecutors noted that Jonathan Toebbe, who had been trained on nuclear propulsion and handling classified data, bore the bulk of the responsibility. But they added that he had cooperated with the Navy’s efforts to do a damage assessment, and the information he had passed along was classified only as confidential, not as secret or top secret.
“His post-plea cooperation was substantial, very substantial,” said Jarod J. Douglas, an assistant U.S. attorney. “It was critical to a larger assessment of that defendant’s conduct, which we may have never known. The Navy would never have known what his conduct was, and what its scope was, without his cooperation.”
But Groh was unconvinced. After a recess, she read from an impact statement submitted by Vice Adm. William Houston of the Navy that outlined the damage the Toebbes had done to the submarine fleet and national security.
“The nation has spent billions of dollars developing naval nuclear propulsion technology,” Groh said, reading from the statement. “Mr. Toebbe’s actions have compromised the integrity of this protected information, thereby undercutting the military advantage afforded by decades of research and development.”
The information Jonathan Toebbe stole from the Navy, the statement said, could give foreign navies the opportunity to close the gap with the United States, something that would take extraordinary effort and resources to restore.
After the hearing, Edward B. MacMahon, a lawyer for Diana Toebbe, said the defense would get back to work on the case.
“We thought this plea represented a fair resolution of the case and are disappointed the judge did not accept it,” MacMahon said.
Evidence presented earlier in the trial showed Jonathan Toebbe wrestling with questions about what country to approach, with Diana Toebbe having fewer qualms.
Diana Toebbe, a high school teacher with a doctorate in archaeology, had been deeply critical of President Donald Trump and had openly mused about leaving the United States, former students said. But defense lawyers for Diana Toebbe noted that a distaste for Trump or the state of American politics was hardly unusual.
The couple eventually approached a country that was friendly to the United States, Brazil, reaching out to an intelligence service there in April 2020. But Brazilian officials notified the FBI, according to a senior Brazilian official and other people briefed on the investigation.
The U.S. government has never acknowledged what country the couple approached as it has tried to keep many details — including how Jonathan Toebbe stole the secrets from the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington — out of the court record.