The case captivated many, combining spy book tradecraft with the strains of suburban life.
WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Tuesday threw out the plea agreements for a Maryland couple who had tried to sell submarine secrets to a foreign country, saying 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 F.B.I. 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.
Mr. Toebbe had agreed to a deal that would send him to prison for 12 years, while Ms. 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 M. Groh of Federal 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 Judge Groh might accept or continue to trial.
In her comments, Judge Groh suggested that she would only accept a deal within the sentencing guidelines. That is likely to mean that both Mr. and Ms. Toebbe would face prison time of more than 15 years. A sentence that long could prompt Ms. 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, 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, Md., would risk everything to try to sell secrets to a foreign government. In court, a lawyer for Ms. Toebbe referred to personal difficulties with which she had to grapple, without elaborating further.
Even as the Tuesday hearing began, Judge Groh expressed skepticism about the plea deals, suggesting that the agreement would let Ms. Toebbe out of prison far too soon.
Judge Groh said Ms. 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.
Both prosecutors and defense lawyers argued the agreed deals were fair. In Ms. 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 Ms. Toebbe.
Prosecutors noted that Mr. Toebbe, who had been trained on both 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 United States attorney. “It was critical to a larger assessment of that defendants 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 Judge 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,” Judge 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 Mr. 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 Ms. 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,” Mr. MacMahon said.
Evidence presented earlier in the trial showed Mr. Toebbe wrestling with questions about what country to approach, with Ms. Toebbe having fewer qualms.
Ms. Toebbe, a high school teacher with a Ph.D. in archaeology, had been deeply critical of President Donald J. Trump and had openly mused about leaving the United States, former students said. But defense lawyers for Ms. Toebbe noted a distaste for Mr. 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 F.B.I., 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 Mr. Toebbe stole the secrets from the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington — out of the court record.