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Thanks to Supreme Court, convicted member of jihadi ‘paintball’ group leaving prison decades early

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A member of the “Virginia jihad network” that trained for combat by playing paintball will be released from prison after serving only a fraction of his original 85-year sentence.

Seifullah Chapman, now 45, was in his 20s when he joined a group of terrorism supporters in Northern Virginia. He was 31 when he was convicted in 2004.

As the result of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding the definition of a violent crime, U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema on Thursday ordered that Chapman be released.

Although his actions “occurred at the periphery of — and in some cases, with the intent to support — violent actions undertaken by others . . . none of these actions involved either Chapman’s actual use of force or a substantial risk that Chapman would use force,” she wrote.

When she first sentenced Chapman, Brinkema said the lengthy incarceration mandated by law was “sticking in my craw.” She later reduced the punishment by 20 years after the Supreme Court ruled that judges no longer had to follow, and had only to consider, sentencing guidelines.

In April, the high court ruled that language describing a “crime of violence” in immigration law is unconstitutionally vague. That sparked another review of Chapman’s punishment because the same definition — conduct that “presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another” — appears in his firearms convictions.

Federal courts across the country are grappling with the impact of the Supreme Court decision in Sessions v. Dimaya in criminal cases. Brinkema is one of the first judges to rule on the issue.

Brinkema sided with the Justice Department in agreeing that such charges can still be salvaged if the particular facts rise to the level of a “serious potential risk.” But she found that Chapman’s actions did not and ordered him released after 14 years.

When the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, Chapman was firing weapons and performing military drills at a training camp run by the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, later designated as a terrorist organization. After the attack he came back to the United States, but he stayed in touch with people he met in Pakistan and helped a member of the group procure drone equipment. When he became involved in a group that was playing paintball in Virginia as part of preparation to fight abroad, possibly in Chechnya, Chapman sold two rifles, one to a man later convicted of joining al-Qaeda.

At trial, Chapman argued that the paintball was harmless fun and that the Pakistani trip was only for health, testimony Brinkema dismissed as impossible to believe.

Brinkema did not address an issue Chapman’s attorneys had raised in court filings — that their client has not received adequate treatment for his diabetes in his Indiana maximum-security prison.

John Zwerling, who represented Chapman at trial, said he was “delighted” by the news his client will be released.

“The result of that case has nagged at me for 14 years,” he said. “He never intended to hurt anybody; it was such a miscarriage of justice. Finally, justice prevails, but it took way too long.”

He said Chapman could have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to seven years in prison, but because he went to trial, the gun charges were stacked in a way that led to the 85-year sentence.

Zwerling credited a group from the University of Denver Law School as “lifesavers” for their work on the case, as did Frank Salvato, who represented Chapman on appeal.

Eleven men were charged and 10 convicted on various charges related to the training. Civil libertarian and Muslim groups said the investigation vindictively punished a group that never intended to harm the United States. But the Justice Department held up the case as part of a critical effort to disrupt terror networks before they turn violent.

Brinkema’s decision could be appealed to the Fourth Circuit. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to comment.