Who should be called a terrorist? The conviction of January 6 fuels the debate

A 49-year-old Texas man was sentenced by a judge to more than seven years in prison on Monday for his role in the attack on the Capitol, the harshest sentence yet for a Jan. 6 defendant – but legal experts and National Security say another decision made by the judge could have potentially wider implications.

In handing down an 87-month sentence to Guy Wesley Reffitt, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich declined to label the defendant a domestic terrorist as requested by prosecutors.

Prosecutors had requested a 15-year prison sentence for Reffitt, based on the use of an increasingly rare legal tool called ‘terrorism-enhancement’, which allows judges to hand down sentences above federal guidelines for some crimes. Federal sentencing guidelines in Reffitt’s case called for a prison term of between nine and 11 years.

On Monday, Friedrich dismissed the government’s motion for amelioration of terrorism, citing other defendants linked to Jan. 6 whose conduct seemed more serious than Reffitt’s – and for whom the Justice Department chose not to prosecute. enhancement of terrorism.

Experts said Fridrich’s decision demonstrates the challenge prosecutors face in meeting the exceptionally high standard for officially qualifying someone as a terrorist under the law.

“In the court of common sense, individuals who entered the Capitol to engage in destructive behavior and disrupt lawful government process may, by definition, have committed a terrorist act,” said John Cohen, a former state official. Homeland Security who is now an ABC News Contributor. “But the challenge for prosecutors is to prove that a defendant has satisfied the specific legal elements of a terrorism offence.”

The terrorism enhancement, codified in Section 3A 1.4 of the federal sentencing guidelines, dates back to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, after which Congress enacted harsher sentences to deter acts of “intimidation or coercion” directed at the government or the civilian population.

An artist’s sketch depicts Guy Wesley Reffitt, joined by his attorney William Welch, right, in federal court in Washington, DC, February 28, 2022.

Dana Verkourteren/AP, FILE

In the years since, terrorism convictions have most often been applied to defendants linked to ISIS or al-Qaeda, or domestic violent extremists like Cesar Sayoc, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to sending pipe bombs to members of Congress.

But critics complain that the law is too broad and applied too inconsistently.

In 2017, for example, prosecutors won a terrorism enhancement for Jessica Reznicek, a climate activist who pleaded guilty to damaging pipeline infrastructure in the Midwest. A federal appeals court upheld his sentence in June.

Meanwhile, neither Dylann Roof, who pleaded guilty to slaughtering nine people at a Bible study in Charleston, nor James Fields, who was convicted of killing a Charlottesville protester with his car, were sentenced to the enhancement of terrorism.

Reffitt, for his part, brought a gun to the Capitol on Jan. 6 and threatened to “physically attack, remove and replace” lawmakers, making him a “quintessential” case for improvement, the US wrote. prosecutors in a July sentencing memorandum. In March, a jury found him guilty of five counts, including obstruction of justice and entering and staying in a restricted building or land with a firearm.

The case marked the first time the Justice Department has sought to apply a terrorism enhancement to a Jan. 6 defendant.

“We believe what he was doing that day was domestic terrorism and we believe he is a domestic terrorist,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler told Judge Friedrich on Monday, before the judge don’t refuse to apply terrorism improvement.

In rejecting the enhancement, Friedrich sided with Reffitt’s defense attorney, who accused prosecutors of using the tool in retaliation for Reffitt taking the case to court.

“This is the only case where the government has asked for amelioration of terrorism, and this is the only case where the defendant has stood trial,” said Clinton Broden, an attorney for Reffitt. “I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure that out.”

Friedrich’s decision to reject the enhancement in Reffitt’s case serves as further evidence of its “unruly and arbitrary use” in federal cases, according to Bill Quigley, an attorney for Reznicek.

PHOTO: In this August 30, 2016 file photo, activist Jessica Reznicek speaks with Lee County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Sproul while conducting a personal occupation and protesting the Bakken pipeline, at an oil pipeline construction site near Keokuk, Iowa.

In this August 30, 2016, file photo, activist Jessica Reznicek talks to Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Sproul while conducting a sit-in and protesting the Bakken Pipeline, at a construction site pipeline construction site along the Mississippi River route near Keokuk, Iowa.

John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye via AP, FILE

“How can Jessica Reznicek be a terrorist in the eyes of the law, and this person who stormed the Capitol and threatened members of Congress is not?” Quigley said.

“It’s ironic that prosecutors were able to get this improvement for someone who damaged infrastructure owned by a private company, but the courts didn’t apply the same label to someone who used violence to advance his extremist ideological beliefs at the seat of our democracy,” Cohen said.

Jordan Strauss, a former national security official at the Justice Department, pointed out that the government’s pursuit of terrorism enhancement against Reffitt could mark a change in its handling of cases related to Jan. 6 – and could foreshadow an approach more aggressive in the future. case.

“This case is notable in that it may reflect a change in policy for Jan. 6 cases going forward,” said Strauss, who is now chief executive of the Kroll Institute, a business consulting firm. “We should expect to see more ameliorations sought, particularly if there are guilty verdicts in the more complex sedition cases.”

ABC News

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