Domestic terror suspect Christopher Hasson pleaded not guilty in federal court Monday to weapon and drug charges that prosecutors say were connected to a plot to murder Democratic and media figures.
In a brief arraignment in Greenbelt, Maryland, Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant, wore a maroon jumpsuit and answered several questions from Judge Gina L. Simms about the charges.
Hasson was indicted in February on charges of unlawful possession of two improperly registered silencers, possession of a narcotic opioid and possession of 17 firearms as an unlawful user and addict of a controlled substance. If convicted on all four counts, he could receive 31 years in prison.
Prosecutors say Hasson wanted to conduct a mass killing and described his white supremacist views in court documents, but have been able so far to charge him only with less serious crimes, opening the door for his lawyers to challenge the detention.
The case highlights the problem prosecutors face in bringing charges against domestic terrorism suspects, when no criminal charge for domestic terrorism exists.
In a detention memo last month prosecutors called Hasson a “domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect governmental conduct.”
The memo references two draft emails Hasson wrote capturing his “extremist views” and white nationalist ideology.
“I am dreaming of a way to kill almost every last person on the earth,” Hasson wrote in one message.
“Focused violence,” Hasson wrote in another, is the solution to achieve a “white homeland.”
Hasson, 49, has been in detention since he was charged last month. On Monday, a prosecutor estimated a trial on the new charges would take five days.
Assistant federal public defender Elizabeth Oyer, who is representing Hasson, did not dispute her client’s detention at the hearing, and declined to comment to reporters afterward when asked if she planned to at a future date.
But in a court appearance last month, a different public defender representing Hasson argued he should not be held without bail on only drug and weapons counts.
It is “not a crime to think negative thoughts about people … or doomsday scenarios,” Julie Stelzig said. “We are not yet a society that criminalizes people for their thoughts … or detains people for their internet searches.”
Some law enforcement experts argue that prosecutors have their hands tied when building cases against domestic terrorists, as opposed to suspected plotters who pledge allegiance to a foreign terror group, because authorities do not officially designate domestic terror groups and it is not illegal to support them.
“This case is the poster child for why we need a domestic terrorism statute,” said Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor and CNN analyst.
“I’m sure the US attorney is saying, ‘This is the biggest case I’ve had and all that’s available to me are these somewhat lame charges,’ ” Honig said. “When the guy gets stopped before he actually pulled off the attack, and he’s a lone wolf, and he’s acting out of domestic terrorism motive, that’s how the case really falls between the cracks.”
Because Hasson did not connect his alleged plot to any international terrorist ideology and has no prior criminal record or any alleged co-conspirator, his case lacks a number of legal hooks that would enable prosecutors to charge him with a weightier crime.
And while Hasson is accused of plotting to murder politicians and journalists, he didn’t go far enough with his alleged plan for prosecutors to charge attempted murder, Honig says.
“It’s like intended murder, which is not actually a crime,” Honig said.