Editor’s Note: Jennifer Rodgers is a CNN legal analyst, a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School and a former federal prosecutor in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own; view more opinion articles at CNN.
The threat of homegrown terrorism, including white supremacist terrorism, appears to be on the rise. Headlines are full of recent terrorist attacks carried out by people with white supremacist views; they include the Tree of Life synagogue killer, the Coast Guard lieutenant charged with plotting a major attack on politicians and news anchors perceived to be left-leaning (he has pleaded not guilty), the New Zealand mosque killer, and the mail bomber Cesar Sayoc.
In 2017, federal law enforcement officials, in an intelligence bulletin, acknowledged the persistent threat white supremacist terrorism presented, but the Trump administration seems to have ignored the findings.
President Donald Trump for his part refuses to acknowledge that white nationalism in this mold is a rising terror threat, preferring to downplay these men as lone attackers with mental illnesses who have nothing to do with him and his divisive rhetoric.
Recently, echoing the 2017 findings, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that white supremacy is a “persistent, pervasive threat.”
Despite expert analysis, though, we may be moving in the wrong direction: it was recently reported that the Department of Homeland Security has disbanded an intelligence and analysis unit dedicated to the threat of homegrown violent extremists, though DHS claimed it was more of a reorganization.
This is why it is so important for federal prosecutors handling these cases to forge ahead and continue their vital work, as the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York did in the Cesar Sayoc case.
For a number of days last October, the nation was gripped by the news that pipe bombs had been mailed to the homes and offices of numerous people (and a news organization – CNN) having something notable in common: all had been repeatedly disparaged and attacked by President Donald Trump.
We were riveted again when the FBI made an arrest in the case: Sayoc, a Florida man who apparently built the pipe bombs in a white van plastered with pro-Trump propaganda.
On March 21, this case was resolved when Sayoc pled guilty in Manhattan federal court to a superseding information charging 65 counts, covering all of the 16 pipe bombs he sent to victims around the country. Sayoc will be sentenced in September. The sentencing guidelines range agreed to by Sayoc and prosecutors, which the judge must consider but is not bound by, is life imprisonment. And one of Sayoc’s counts of conviction carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years imprisonment to be served consecutive to whatever sentence is imposed on the other counts.
Practically speaking, this means that Sayoc will serve between 10 years and the rest of his life in prison.
While we won’t know until the fall what Sayoc’s sentence is, securing this plea was a good move by prosecutors for a number of reasons.
Prosecutors simply don’t have enough time to take all of their cases to trial. Reduced charges are offered to people like Sayoc because a plea offers benefits for both parties: Sayoc escaped the possibility of conviction on more counts with mandatory minimum sentences, and prosecutors got a certain result without having to use precious resources on a trial. This will allow Southern District prosecutors to focus on other matters, including the upcoming death penalty-eligible terrorism trial of Sayfullo Saipov for allegedly using his van to murder eight people on the West Side Highway in October 2017. He pleaded not guilty, but has offered to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty.
Guilty pleas also benefit the public by providing finality. Unlike a conviction at trial, after which defendants may – and often do – continue to profess their innocence, Sayoc’s guilty plea required him to admit that he has committed the charged crimes, under oath and in public. Although he later sent a letter to the judge saying that the pipe bombs were meant to intimidate – not hurt anyone – the public can rest assured that Sayoc is guilty, and the plea obtained ensures that he will be sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
Even in cases with strong evidence like this one, trials carry elements of uncertainty, and terrorism trials can be uniquely challenging and draining of prosecutorial resources.
Given the nature of the charges, issues of security are paramount. Terrorism trials also generate a great deal of publicity, which can affect other trial participants, including witnesses’ willingness to testify, and jurors’ willingness to serve. Jurors may see press reports, which can endanger a guilty verdict on appeal, despite the warnings judges give to avoid them.
Finally, trials in terror cases are usually complicated procedurally and complicated in terms of the evidence presented. In the Sayoc case, government lawyers indicated that at trial they might have needed experts in multiple areas, including explosives, forensic chemistry, and DNA and fingerprint analysis.
Of course, we should be able to rely on our President, our intelligence communities, and our investigative agencies to take these threats seriously and act accordingly. Hopefully they do. But at least Sayoc’s guilty plea is a sign that the criminal justice system part of our government is working to deter those who would wish to follow in Sayoc’s footsteps.