A U.S. district judge in Alexandria issued orders demanding the government show cause why she shouldn't vacate the convictions obtained more than a decade ago against what prosecutors called a "Virginia jihad network."
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A federal judge is weighing whether to toss out some counts of conviction in four terrorism cases after a Supreme Court ruling struck down a similarly worded law this week.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a law allowing deportation of some immigrants who commit crimes because the law was unconstitutionally vague about what crimes would prompt deportation; the four terrorism defendants argue they were convicted under a law that was similarly vague about describing a “crime of violence.”
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria issued orders demanding the government show cause why she shouldn’t vacate the convictions obtained more than a decade ago against what prosecutors called a “Virginia jihad network,” which used paintball games in the woods near Fredericksburg as a means of training for holy war. Several group members traveled to Pakistan after the Sept. 11 attacks with the goal of joining the Taliban in Afghanistan. At trial, several said they were persuaded to go when the group’s spiritual leader, Ali Al-Timimi, said after Sept. 11 that the world was on the verge of an apocalyptic battle between Muslims and nonbelievers.
Al-Timimi, of Falls Church, was convicted of soliciting treason, among other counts, and sentenced to life in prison.
Others convicted include Seifullah Chapman, who is serving a 65-year sentence. Chapman, a former Marine, traveled to Pakistan before the Sept. 11 attacks to train with a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba. After the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, he ended his training and returned to the United States.
Masoud Khan, on the other hand, traveled to Pakistan after Sept. 11 to join Lashkar, which group members believed was the best way to get necessary training to join the Taliban. Khan is serving a life sentence.
The fourth defendant affected by Brinkema’s order, Ismail Royer, is already out of prison after serving more than a decade. He struck a plea deal in which he admitted helping some group members make contact with Lashkar.
If Brinkema does indeed strike the convictions related to crimes of violence, it is possible several of the defendants could receive significantly reduced sentences. Other counts of conviction would remain in place, but the defendants could receive new sentencing hearings. In several instances it was the convictions for using firearms in a crime of violence, or serving as an accomplice to the use of firearms in a crime of violence, that required the imposition of such lengthy sentences. Those are the counts now in jeopardy.
Brinkema has already said she objected to being required under federal law to impose sentences she considered “draconian” and suggested she would have preferred to impose sentences of only 10 years against Chapman and Khan.
Chapman and Khan already had their sentences reduced once before. Those reductions occurred in 2005 after the Supreme Court tossed out mandatory sentencing guidelines.
Al-Timimi’s case, in particular, has been bogged down in appeals for more than a decade since his 2005 conviction. His lawyers have accused the government of withholding evidence connected to Anwar al-Awlaki, who was an imam in northern Virginia back in 2001 and later went on to become an Al-Qaeda leader killed in a 2011 drone strike. Defense lawyers contend that in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Awlaki may have been working as a government informant, and they have been seeking information on what they say is a suspicious visit al-Awlaki paid on Al-Timimi in 2002.
Al-Timimi’s lawyer, Jonathan Turley, said Thursday that he is appreciative the court took action based on the Supreme Court ruling. “We are eager to address this issue and the other issues,” he said.