Editor’s Note: Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor, is currently a CNN legal analyst and Rutgers University scholar. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Friday, federal authorities arrested Cesar Sayoc Jr., who was charged with sending 13 pipe bombs targeting prominent members of the Democratic party as well as CNN (a 14th bomb was discovered after the arrest). Given the seriousness of the charges and the strength of the evidence, both of which could escalate as the case progresses, Sayoc is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
While Sayoc was arrested in Florida, he is charged in the Southern District of New York. Even if Sayoc never physically stepped foot in the district, five of the pipe bombs ended up in the SDNY’s jurisdiction.
It is appropriate that the SDNY handle the case. The prosecutors there have unparalleled experience and expertise with cases involving terrorism and explosives, having taken on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 African embassy bombings, the 2010 Times Square bomber and the 2016 Chelsea bomber. No federal district in the country is better prepared to prosecute this week’s attempted bombing spree.
Sayoc will make his first court appearance on Monday in the federal district court for the Southern District of Florida. In that proceeding, a federal magistrate judge will formally advise Sayoc of the charges against him, read him his rights and appoint counsel if necessary. The magistrate judge will also set or deny initial bail. Given the seriousness of the charges and Sayoc’s lengthy criminal history, it is almost certain the magistrate judge will deny bail and order Sayoc detained pending trial. The 56-year-old suspect is likely to consent to his detention for the time being instead of requesting bail.
Assuming Sayoc remains in federal custody, the US Marshals will transport Sayoc to Manhattan to be prosecuted by the SDNY. This can take weeks, although the marshals might expedite the process given the profile of this case. In the meantime, the SDNY will continue the investigation before presenting evidence to a grand jury, which will eventually vote on an indictment.
Sayoc, who faces five federal counts, is likely to be hit with additional charges in the weeks to come. Prosecutors commonly charge only the most immediately provable crimes in an initial complaint. In this case, the SDNY might add charges including the use of a destructive device during and in furtherance of a crime of violence, use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder of a former president or other official, depending on the continuing investigation. The SDNY could also decide to charge each pipe bomb as a separate count. Those charges, if added, could increase Sayoc’s maximum punishment from 48 years to life in prison.
The evidence of Sayoc’s guilt looks exceptionally strong. According to the complaint, this already includes a fingerprint and a possible DNA match. The complaint also lays out compelling circumstantial evidence: the bombs and packages bear remarkable resemblances to one another; several packages were sent from the mail processing center where Sayoc lives; Sayoc’s van was covered with images including one critical of CNN, a recipient of the bombs; and Sayoc’s social media pages show the same conspicuous misspellings that appeared on the package bombs.
Sayoc also reportedly told investigators that the bombs would not have hurt anyone and that he did not want to hurt anyone. That statement is damaging to Sayoc because he plainly admits his own connection to and culpability for the bombs. And the investigation will continue. If investigators discover evidence in Sayoc’s van linking him to the bombs, or surveillance footage of him acquiring some of the materials, the case against him will become even stronger.
While it is always the prosecutor’s burden to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, Sayoc does not appear to have any viable defense at the moment. There is no indication that this is a case of mistaken identity or that Sayoc has an alibi. If anything, it appears that Sayoc may raise a defense based on his mental capacity, although it remains unclear whether he has any diagnoses. Sayoc’s former attorney claims the suspect has for years shown “a lack of comprehension of reality.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
Federal law recognizes a defense only when somone is “unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts” due to a “severe mental disease or defect.” Even if Sayoc somehow succeeds on this defense, he will still be committed to federal custody at least until he can prove his condition through expert testimony.
Federal prosecutors in this case will not be inclined towards a quick or generous plea deal. Prosecutors will rarely state it publicly, but some cases are simply “message” cases. Given the intense public scrutiny, the seriousness of the charges, and the need to deter future copycats, look for the SDNY to take a hard line with Sayoc. He will likely face only two options: plead guilty to all charges and or go to trial. Either way, expect the SDNY to seek a punishment at or near the maximum allowed by law. Such a sentence should ensure that Sayoc never walks free again.