A federal judge yesterday reduced the sentences of three members of a "Virginia jihad network," ordering the resentencings to comply with a recent Supreme Court ruling that allowed judges more discretion on such issues.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema was pleased that she had the chance to lessen sentences she had criticized as excessive. The Supreme Court ruling has resulted in hundreds of cases being sent back for resentencings nationwide, and yesterday's case -- in which a group of Muslim men were convicted of training for violent jihad abroad -- is perhaps the most high-profile.
Brinkema reduced defendant Seifullah Chapman's sentence from 85 years in prison to 65 years and shaved 20 years off Masoud Khan's sentence. She said she wanted to cut their punishments further but couldn't because the Supreme Court ruling applied only to federal sentencing guidelines. It did not cover the separate, congressionally imposed mandatory minimum sentences for certain firearms charges that drove the two sentences to a level Brinkema again called "really draconian."
Even with the reduction, Khan, 35, will still spend the rest of his life in prison. Brinkema also lessened the punishment of the third defendant, Hammad Abdur-Raheem, from 97 months in prison to 52 months.
Yesterday's proceedings in U.S. District Court in Alexandria were a measure of the confusion that has gripped federal courts nationwide both before and after January's Supreme Court decision. Hundreds of cases had already been put on hold before the ruling, which made mandatory sentencing guidelines advisory. The guidelines had been developed over the past two decades and governed most criminal cases.
Since the Supreme Court decision, appellate courts have been sending cases back to lower courts in response to appeals by defendants whose sentences were decided under the old system. "There is no question this has been highly disruptive to the court system," said Steven Chanenson, a Villanova University law professor tracking the issue. He said the majority of new sentences have been lower or about the same.
The Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has sent back dozens of cases to federal judges in Virginia and Maryland. The most prominent of those was the Virginia jihad case.
In the case, 11 Muslim men, all but one from the Washington suburbs, were charged with taking part in paramilitary training, including playing paintball in the Virginia countryside, to prepare for holy war abroad. Six defendants pleaded guilty; only Chapman, Khan and Abdur-Raheem went to trial. Two others were acquitted.
Brinkema originally sentenced Chapman, Khan and Abdur-Raheem in June 2004.
The Justice Department has hailed the convictions as a major victory in the battle against terrorism and said the investigation has secured more successful prosecutions than any domestic terrorism case since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But the defendants, their attorneys and Muslim groups have criticized the case, saying the men were prosecuted mainly because they are Muslim.
Chapman, 32, renewed that allegation yesterday. "I see this case as an attack against Islam, and so does the Muslim community," he told Brinkema at the hearing. His voice quavering, Chapman said he has been unfairly labeled a terrorist and treated as such by prison guards.
His attorney, John K. Zwerling, said he understood that Brinkema had to sentence Chapman to at least 55 years in prison for the firearms counts but still denounced the punishment as excessive. He urged the judge to impose only one additional day beyond the 55 years.
Khan's attorney, Jonathan Shapiro, said his client "didn't hurt anybody; he didn't shoot anybody. I think it's an abomination he is facing all the time he is facing."
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said later that he was "gratified" that the new sentences imposed on Chapman and Khan were as long as they were but said he was disappointed that Abdur-Raheem's sentence was cut nearly in half. He said the Justice Department will review the sentences and decide whether to appeal.
He also criticized what he called the "mixed bag" nature of the punishments, saying the Supreme Court ruling has led to increased disparity in sentences for defendants convicted of similar crimes. "The government's purpose is to see that defendants are sentenced in a similar way," McNulty said.