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Harding Pleads Guilty to Obstructing Justice : Sentence: Olympian resigns from skating team. Plea bargain includes probation, fine, community service.

March 17, 1994|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tonya Harding on Wednesday entered a surprise plea of guilty to "hindering prosecution" and agreed to resign from U.S. amateur figure skating as a result of the attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan.

She was sentenced to three years' probation on the felony charge, fined $100,000 and ordered to serve 500 hours of community service under terms arranged with the Portland, Ore., district attorney's office. Under Oregon sentencing guidelines, Harding will not serve any prison time.

Harding also agreed to create a $50,000 fund for the Special Olympics in Oregon and pay the county $10,000 reimbursement for "special costs."

"I'm really sorry that I interfered," Harding told Multnomah County Presiding Judge Donald Londer after sentencing was pronounced.

Harding's guilty plea came one day before she was scheduled to leave for the world championships and less than a week before the Multnomah County grand jury was to issue its final charges in the two-month-old case, which at one time involved investigators in four states as well as the FBI.

As part of the plea bargain, the 23-year-old Harding agreed to resign immediately from the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. and from the U.S. figure skating team now heading to Japan for the World Championships.

Harding was the reigning U.S. champion.

During her brief and poignant court appearance in Portland Wednesday afternoon, Harding seemed controlled and even smiled sheepishly when the judge asked her for her occupation.

She then put her signature to the guilty plea and sighed--the end of the road for her in a clumsy assault case that accomplished nothing so much as making Kerrigan the most celebrated second-place Olympian in American history and reducing Harding to one of figure skating's most notorious and tragic figures.

Prosecutors said no other charges would be brought against her.

In his routine questioning to determine if Harding understood the consequences of her guilty plea, the judge asked if she was suffering emotional or mental instability. Harding paused and answered quietly, "I don't know."

Further questioning satisfied the judge that she was competent. But as a final part of the plea bargain, Harding agreed to undergo a psychological examination and treatment as may be ordered.

Afterward, her attorney, Robert Weaver, told reporters: "She has committed herself to a program where she will seek and pursue some professional assistance in trying to find out what it has been in her past that has gotten herself into these personal relationships that have been so destructive."

Under Oregon law, conviction of "conspiracy to commit hindering prosecution" carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

The guilty plea was an unexpected conclusion for almost everyone who had followed the case as the skater and her lawyer fought the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. as they attempted to discipline her and weighed her participation in last month's Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Harding herself gave no indication of giving in to the legal system until the last moment. Only a few hours before her court appearance, she was on the ice practicing as usual at a suburban shopping mall rink. She also had recently shown off a costume designed for her appearance in Japan.

Even though the plea came as a surprise, it was more or less consistent with what she had told the public: She had learned of the attack on Kerrigan after it happened Jan. 6 and did not go to authorities. FBI transcripts released earlier disclosed that agents accused her of lying about cover-up attempts.

But until she walked into the second-floor courtroom Wednesday, Harding said she felt her actions did not constitute a crime or even conduct unbecoming an amateur athlete. She frequently urged supporters to "believe in me."

All along, Harding has said she did not plan or approve the attack on Kerrigan ahead of time. And Wednesday's pleading ended the formal discussion but not the speculation of her involvement.

After the hearing, Deputy Dist. Atty. Norm Frink said there was "substantial evidence to support Ms. Harding's involvement prior to the assault."

"She's not going to plead guilty to it, but I think the facts speak for themselves," he said. The prosecution accepted the plea agreement because of the potentially large cost of a trial, he said.

Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, bargained for a reduced sentence with an earlier guilty plea to racketeering in the case. He said Harding knew and approved of the attack in advance. Gillooly was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $100,000.

Three other men have been arrested in the case--Shawn Eckardt, accused of being a go-between; Shane M. Stant, accused of clubbing Kerrigan; and Derrick Smith, accused of being the getaway driver. Their cases are pending.

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