A federal judge in Kansas is set to decide whether a man with developmental disabilities should go to prison for lending $100 to somebody he believed was planning to attack U.S. soldiers on behalf of Islamic State, a case that highlights the growing question of how to prosecute terror suspects with psychological problems.
Lawyers for Alexander Blair, 29 years old, say he should be spared prison time because he suffers from Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that results in abnormal brain development and learning disabilities. The government recommended a five-year sentence, which prosecutors said takes Mr. Blair’s condition into consideration while still providing adequate punishment for a serious crime.
At a hearing two weeks ago, where both sides presented their arguments for sentencing, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree said he needed more time to decide. He is scheduled to announce his decision on Thursday.
About 100 Americans have been arrested since early 2014 on charges related to support for Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS, and at least 10% of them have been treated for or diagnosed with mental illness, according to Fordham University’s Center on National Security. Many more suffer from undiagnosed behavioral and psychological problems, experts say.
For these defendants, determining the appropriate punishment is especially challenging.
“The judge has to weigh all these things,” said Ronald Schouten, who directs the forensic psychiatry service at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Can they be rehabilitated? Is there treatment? If they grew up in an abusive environment and are expressing their rage toward society in general, maybe we can help those folks.”
Dr. Schouten, who has evaluated defendants for criminal investigations, said Islamic State’s propaganda often appeals to young people who are isolated, depressed and searching for a connection.
After becoming interested in Islam around early 2015, Mr. Blair befriended a man named John Booker at a mosque in Topeka, Kan., according to court documents. At the time, Mr. Booker had been communicating with a government informant about his desire to carry out an act of violence to support Islamic State, prosecutors said.
Informants worked with Mr. Booker to build what he believed was a workable bomb and then accompanied him to detonate the inert device at a military base, where Mr. Booker was arrested, according to authorities. Mr. Blair allegedly shared some of Mr. Booker’s extremist views about jihad and gave him $100 to a rent a storage unit to hold the bomb components.
Mr. Blair pleaded guilty in May to one count of conspiracy. Mr. Booker has also pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Mr. Blair’s lawyers argue that sending him to prison would exacerbate his developmental issues and do little to deter future terrorist acts by radical jihadists. Mr. Blair had taken medication for anxiety and depression, according to a psychiatric report.
Because his disorder results in an inability to process social cues and a compulsion to maintain friendships, Mr. Blair is more vulnerable to manipulation from people like Mr. Booker, his lawyers wrote in sentencing papers.
Prosecutors, however, said Mr. Blair had the mental capacity to distinguish right from wrong. At one point, he turned down a request from Mr. Booker to buy a gun, showing he “was capable…of rejecting Booker’s directives when he thought it appropriate,” prosecutors wrote. Recognizing Mr. Blair’s social limitations, the government chose not to charge him with providing material support to terrorists, which could have resulted in a 15-year prison sentence.
So far, only 21 defendants in Islamic State-related cases have been sentenced, with an average prison sentence of nine years. A handful of judges have already grappled with whether psychological problems should be a mitigating factor at sentencing, with mixed results.
In 2014, Adam Dandach was arrested at an airport in Orange County, Calif., before he was able to board a flight to Turkey, with a final destination of Syria. The 22-year-old pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to Islamic State and making a false statement on a passport application.
Mr. Dandach’s lawyer said his client deserved a lenient sentence because of abuse he suffered as a child. Mr. Dandach had been treated for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, Asperger syndrome and other psychological issues, according to his sentencing papers.
Prosecutors sought a 20-year sentence, saying Mr. Dandach’s mental health had already been accounted for in the plea agreement. His difficult childhood didn’t excuse the fact that he tried to join a terrorist group, the government wrote. The judge ultimately sentenced him to 15 years in July.
In a similar case, Nicholas Teausant, a 22-year-old from Acampo, Calif., pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a terrorist group after he was arrested near the Canadian border, where he was intending to travel to Syria to join Islamic State.
He suffered from “mild cognitive and moderate social problems,” according to court documents, and two doctors cited by the defense diagnosed him with schizophrenia. At his sentencing in June, the government and Mr. Teausant’s defense team disputed whether he still posed a threat to society.
U.S. District Judge John Mendez sentenced him to 12 years in prison, longer than the nine years recommended by the government.
The judge acknowledged that Mr. Teausant appeared to be “one of the least successful want-to-be or would-be terrorists” in the nation, but he said there is no room for error when punishing terrorism-related crimes.