By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, March 5 (Reuters) - A former security guard at a U.S. consulate in China was sentenced to nine years in prison on Tuesday for trying to pass secrets to the Chinese government.
Federal prosecutors had sought to have Bryan Underwood sentenced to nearly twice as much time, but Judge Ellen Huvelle of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia noted that Underwood had not made contact with any Chinese officials, making it unclear how concrete his plans were.
"This is the most half-baked treason I've ever heard of," Huvelle said. Ultimately, "nothing happened."
Underwood already had pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to communicate national security information to a foreign government. The maximum sentence was life in prison and a fine of up to $250,0000.
Prosecutors said Underwood had, among other things, taken photographs of a new consulate compound in Guangzhou, which was under construction at the time and where he worked as a guard, with the intent of providing them to the Chinese government. He also tried to flee after coming under suspicion from federal investigators.
In March 2011, after losing investment savings, Underwood went to a Chinese government building with a letter in hand but was turned away. Prosecutors say he was hoping to make between $3 million and $5 million.
Federal prosecutors, saying that Underwood had "betrayed his country and gravely jeopardized the national security of the United States," had asked that he be sentenced to 17 years and seven months in prison.
After questioning lawyers on both sides and Underwood himself, Huvelle decided against such a long sentence. She cited Underwood's mental problems, troubled childhood and honorable service in the U.S. Marine Corps along with his failure to contact any Chinese officials.
Addressing the court, Underwood, wearing an orange prison-issue jumpsuit and visibly emotional, said he is a paranoid schizophrenic who is now getting the mental health treatment he needed.
"I'm sorry I've shamed my country," he said.
In a court filing, Underwood's lawyers, saying their client was a "humbled and remorseful man," had asked for a five-year prison sentence.
Defense lawyer Erich Ferrari told Huvelle on Tuesday that Underwood had acted irrationally while under stress due to his financial situation.
"He is not a master spy," Ferrari said. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)