Criminal sentences are often put in place with the hope of deterring future crime. If committing a given crime means going away for five years, the reasoning goes, people will think twice before committing that crime. But what happens if a defendant’s lawyers argue that a stiff penalty would not be a deterrent, because the president of the United States is actively working against any deterrent it would provide?
First, some background. In October 2016, three Kansas men were arrested for plotting to blow up an apartment complex that housed Somali immigrants and doubled as a mosque:
Federal investigators said Friday they stopped a domestic terrorism plot by a militia group that planned to detonate bombs at a Garden City apartment complex where a number of Somalis live.
Three southwest Kansas men were arrested and charged in federal court with domestic terrorism, Acting U.S. Attorney Tom Beall said at a news conference in downtown Wichita.
The three are suspected of conspiring to set off a bomb where about 120 people — including many Muslim immigrants from Somalia — live and worship, Beall said.
An apartment at the complex also serves as a mosque, officials said.
Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright, and Patrick Stein were placed on trial, and in April 2018, they were convicted of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights:
Three members of a Kansas militia with a hatred of Muslim immigrants have been found guilty of plotting to blow up a mosque and apartment complex that housed Somali refugees in order to “wake people up”.
A federal jury in Wichita convicted Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen on charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights.
Wright was also convicted of lying to the FBI. The men, who pleaded not guilty, face up to life in prison when they are sentenced on 27 June.
Their plot developed against a backdrop of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign intensified ahead of the November 2016 election.
The next step is sentencing. Here’s where it gets interesting.
In court documents filed this week, attorneys for Patrick Stein, Curtis Allen, and Gavin Wright, say the men were influenced by Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and Russian propaganda on social media and argue that life sentences against their clients would not deter others from committing similar crimes.
Okay, so maybe interesting is the wrong word to use. The argument Stein, Allen, and Wrights’ attorneys are making is that sentencing the men to life in prison as a deterrent against similar such crime would be pointless, because trying to deter such crimes in the current political climate is pointless.
I initially thought I must surely be misunderstanding. But no, it looks like I’m not misunderstanding anything at all. This really does appear to be the argument.
First, there’s the “they can’t really be blamed for their actions because they made plans to blow up Somali families in a heightened political climate” argument:
Stein’s attorneys argued that the 2016 presidential election and Trump’s rhetoric played a role in the culpability of their client, whom they described as “an early and avid supporter” of Trump, who called for a Muslim registry, closing mosques, and greater surveillance of Muslim Americans during his campaign.“The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president,” his attorneys said. “Trump’s brand of rough-and-tumble verbal pummeling heightened the rhetorical stakes for people of all political persuasions.”
Next, there’s the “sentencing them to life in prison is won’t serve as a deterrent because people are going to keep doing this kind of thing anyway because Trump is still stoking islamophobia” argument:
Wright’s attorneys cited a Pew Research Center analysis that found an increase in anti-Muslim violence since Trump’s election and Trump’s continued stoking of Islamophobia as reasons why a life sentence against him would do nothing to discourage others.
They pointed to several of Trump’s tweets, including one from just last week in which he claimed, without proof, that “Middle Easterners are mixed in” the migrant caravan currently making its way toward the US from Central America.
“The speaker with the best bully pulpit in the world is never sanctioned for spreading fear and advocating harm,” Wright’s attorneys said. “General deterrence under these circumstances is simply a pipe dream.”
What is it the attorneys want?
Attorneys for Stein have asked for no more than 15 years total, while Allen’s attorneys asked that he be sentenced to 10 years for each count to be served at the same time. Wright’s attorneys are asking the court to sentence him to time already served.
Completely irrespective of what Trump does, what Trump says has already changed things. Trump’s words are emboldening human rights abuses in other countries. And yes, they are emboldening hate crimes in the U.S. Hopefully the judge will ignore these attorneys’ claims and sentence Stein, Allen, and Wright as they deserve, but that attorneys could make arguments like these is itself disturbing.
Besides, this legal strategy seems backwards. Sentencing the trio to life in prison would send a message that even if acts are incited by the president, they will still be punished. Letting them off easy would send a message that the president’s rhetoric offers cover, when it should not—and does not.
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