The legal saga of Lisa Nowak, the disgraced former astronaut who threw away her NASA career over a confrontation with a romantic rival, is coming to an end.
Nowak, a Navy Captain, appeared in an Orlando courtroom this afternoon, and pleaded guilty to reduced charges of burglary of a car (a third-degree felony) and misdemeanor battery. The charges stemmed from Nowak's 2007 showdown with Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, the woman who was dating her former lover, astronaut Bill Oefelein.
Noting her military service--and lack of a prior criminal record--Judge Marc Lubet accepted Nowak's guilty plea and sentenced her to only two days in jail (with credit for time served after her arrest), and one year's probation. Captain Nowak must also send a "sincere" letter of apology to Shipman within 10 days and perform 50 hours of community service.
With today's plea agreement, Nowak avoids trial on more serious charges, which could have netted a five-year prison sentence. Following her arrest, Nowak was indicted on a serious of felony counts--including kidnapping--although many of those charges were later dismissed.
As part of her guilty plea in today's pre-trial hearing, Nowak offered apologies to Shipman, the Air Force Captain who began dating Oefelein after his break-up with Nowak. As the Orlando Sentinel reports:
"... Nowak turned from a courtroom podium Tuesday to face the woman she was accused of attacking two years ago. She stood up straight, and her blue eyes focused on Colleen Shipman sitting in the front row of the packed room.
"I am sincerely sorry for causing fear and misunderstanding and all the intense public exposure you have encountered," Nowak said.
When she addressed the court, Shipman described Nowak as a woman apparently intent on murder:
"It was in her eyes, a blood-chilling expression of unlimited rage and glee," Shipman said. "I am a hundred-percent certain Lisa Nowak came here to murder me."
Shipman said she lost her job in the U.S. Air Force because of the attack and that it gave her high blood pressure, dizzy spells and migraines. Her family has lost money taking time off work to support her through the trial, she said.
Shipman said she still has nightmares and constantly looks over her shoulder. She bought a shotgun and had an alarm installed in her home, "all in effort to feel secure again, but none of it has worked."
She lives with Oefelein in Alaska, and the two are engaged.
As part of her sentence, Nowak was told to avoid contact with Oelefein, who was also fired from NASA because of the scandal.
Having accepted a plea deal in a civilian court, the Nowak case now shifts to the Navy, which can also impose punishment. However, the service has offered no indication as to whether Nowak will face charges. Some observers believe the Navy would prefer to have the whole mess go away, and allow Nowak to quietly retire.
And that would be criminal, for lack of a better term. Nowak's offenses might be described as "crimes of the heart," but her actions in Orlando are inexcusable. Allowing her to avoid military punishment would send the worst possible signal, reaffirming the old maxim about "different spanks for different ranks."
Thanks to her guilty plea, Lisa Nowak is now a convicted felon. Accordingly, she is not deserving of retirement at the rank of Captain. The Navy should allow her to retire, but as a Commander, the last rank at which she served honorably. Sending her out the door at reduced rank would send the right message--that senior officers (and former Navy poster girls) are not above the law.