WICHITA, Kansas (AP) — Attorneys for Kansas militia members who conspired to bomb a mosque and apartment complex housing Somali immigrants have asked the court to take into account at a sentencing hearing next month what they called US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric encouraging violence.
One has asked the judge to also consider the fact that all three men read and shared Russian propaganda on their Facebook feed designed to sow discord in the US political system.
A federal jury convicted Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen of one count of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and one count of conspiracy against civil rights in April. Wright was also found guilty of lying to the FBI. The attack, planned for the day after the 2016 general election, was thwarted by another member of the group who tipped off authorities about escalating threats of violence.
US District Judge Eric Melgren will consider at their sentencing on November 19 and 20 how much time each man will spend in prison. Conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction carries a possible maximum sentence of life imprisonment, while the sentence for the civil rights violation carries no more than 10 years. The sentencing had previously been scheduled for Friday.
Prosecutors are seeking life terms for all three, while defense attorneys are variously pleading for shorter terms of 15, 10 or even time served.
The government pointed to the seriousness of the offense, which it says continues to have “a deep, lasting impact on the victims’ sense of security in their homes and at their mosque. It also wanted to ensure the men can never threaten the safety of the public again. And it argued for the need to send a strong deterrent message that violence against the government or any person will not be tolerated.
But defense attorneys in court filings Monday and Tuesday sought to humanize their clients and spread some of the blame.
“The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president,” according to a sentencing memorandum written by attorneys representing Stein.
His attorneys said Trump’s “rough-and-tumble verbal pummeling” heightened the rhetorical stakes for people of all political persuasions. Stein was an early and avid supporter for Trump, and his connection to Trump was “so complete and long-standing” that Trump’s surprising win cannot be ignored when evaluating the likelihood of an actual attack, they said.
Trump’s win “changed everything” because the men’s the urgency for action and the feeling of a losing battle would be gone, they argued. Conspiracies — among them that then President Barack Obama would not relinquish power — would be disproved. He contended the discussed attack likely would never have happened in the world that existed after Trump’s election.
Stein’s knowledge of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, came from the internet and conservative talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Michael Savage, Stein’s attorneys wrote.
The sentencing memorandum filed by attorneys for Allen is littered with examples of Russian propaganda ads found in his Facebook feed. All three men were Facebook “friends” with each other and shared, liked or posted content from groups later determined to have been created by Russian Operatives, according to the filing.
Among the Russian propaganda: a photo Stein shared in February 2016 from the “Heart of Texas” Facebook group, in March 2016 Allen “liked” America’s Freedom Fighters, in October Wright shared a photo meme on Facebook created by the Facebook group “Being Patriotic.”
Allen, an Iraq war veteran who suffers from PTSD and believed Muslims were the enemy, was susceptible to the influence of the social media he consumed, his attorneys argued.
“He was particularly vulnerable to the social media onslaught by Russian operatives that included in 2016 themes and messages that stoked the flames on issues related to this case,” Allen’s defense attorneys wrote. “These crimes occurred during a time of high political intensity in 2016. In short, it was a perfect storm of facts and circumstances.”
Defense attorneys for Wright argued that since Trump’s election the nation has seen an unprecedented increase in civil rights violence, repeatedly citing White House statements such as calling Islam “a dangerous threat” and painting Americans as “victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad.”
As recently as Tuesday, when their motion was filed, his attorneys pointed to another Trump tweet saying that “some very bad people” are mixed in the South American migrant caravan and calling it is “an invasion” of the country.
“As long as the Executive Branch condemns Islam and commends and encourages violence against would-be enemies, then a sentence imposed by the Judicial Branch does little to deter people generally from engaging in such conduct if they believe they are protecting their countries from enemies identified by their own Commander-in-Chief,” Wright’s lawyers wrote.