MANHATTAN (CN) — For two weeks last October, a fanatical devotee of President Donald Trump mailed out bombs to perceived critics, and, prosecutors say, reveled in the national headlines as those attacks terrorized a nation.
Sentencing that man to 20 years in prison on Monday, a federal judge emphasized the need to look closely at both the crimes and their perpetrator.
“So, just who is the human being who perpetrated these horrific acts of domestic terrorism?” U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff asked, detailing the life of abuse, neglect and untreated mental illness that made Cesar Sayoc a prime candidate for radicalization.
“It is perhaps then not surprising that someone of Mr. Sayoc’s emotionally fragile nature not only became infatuated with a public figure – in this case Donald Trump – but also came to view Mr. Trump’s political opponents as demons who were out to destroy not just Mr. Trump but Mr. Sayoc as well,” Rakoff said.
Sayoc, 57, arrived in the Manhattan court for sentencing this afternoon after terrorist attacks over the past week left the country grief stricken and afraid.
Though Sayoc failed to detonate any of the bombs he mailed, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff observed in court that the message was clear.
“You send an inoperative pipe bomb to various, high-level political figures, intending … that they will react with great fear, and it will be punishment for their ‘wrongful’ political views or deterrent for future ‘wrongful’ political views,” Rakoff said.
The U.S. federal sentencing guidelines called for severity — life in prison, plus 10 years, presumably in the hereafter — but Sayoc received a sentence far closer to earth from Rakoff, whose antipathy for U.S. mass incarceration is well documented.
Quipping that the “angels are listening” to the prosecution’s demands, Rakoff focused instead on the defendant seated before him.
Though he cried during a previous hearing, Sayoc kept his composure as he read a scripted statement recounting his neglect by an absent father and childhood sexual abuse at a Catholic boarding school.
“I am beyond so very sorry for what I did,” Sayoc said, before addressing his “superwoman mother,” as he called her, and other family members who appeared in court today.
Prosecutors characterized Sayoc’s mail-bomb spree last October as a “two-week terrorist attack” that targeted President Barack Obama; ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; ex-Attorney General Eric Holder, Congresswoman Maxine Waters; former CIA Director John Brennan, ex-national intelligence director James Clapper; actor Robert De Niro; liberal financiers George Soros and Tom Steyer; CNN newsrooms in New York and Atlanta; and Democratic candidates Joe Biden, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris.
Each pipe bomb had been filled with explosive powder, chlorine and shards of glass. Their exteriors showed a photo of the intended victim, and Rakoff noted that the red “X” Sayoc drew over each face was “an obvious symbol of extermination.”
Prosecutors argued that there was no reason for such a design if these were in fact never intended to kill.
“If he had intended for these bombs to just be hoaxes, he could have left them empty or he could have packed them with sand, but he chose to put glass fragments into the bomb,” Kim said.
Judge Rakoff had not been persuaded: Two forensic experts testified early in the hearing today that, even if technically possible, the chance that Sayoc’s bombs could have maimed or killed people had been remote.
FBI bomb specialist Kevin Finnerty testified bluntly of the devices: “It would not have worked with the design that the individual put into those bombs.”
Recounting evidence that Sayoc had researched mail bombs in 2016, Rakoff found that his ineffectual construction of the bombs was “a conscious choice.”
“He hated his victims,” Rakoff said. “He wished them no good, but he was not so lost as to wish them dead, at least not by his own hand.”
“Does any of this matter?” Rakoff asks, referring to the “unfortunate circumstances” leading up to his crimes.
“Yes,” Rakoff said, answering his own question, “within modest limits.”
Sayoc was a child when his father left the picture. Coping with cognitive and mental disorders, he used steroids to protect himself from bullies among his peers and then to supplement his career as a bodyguard.
Michael First, a psychiatry expert from Columbia University, opined that Sayoc could be “safely managed” if released during his lifetime.
Defense attorneys portrayed Sayoc as an emotionally and intellectually vulnerable drifter who was previously apolitical until catching Trump fever.
“We believe that the president’s rhetoric contributed to Mr. Sayoc’s actions in this offense,” defense attorney Ian Marcus said, adding that he understood why the Department of Justice would not want to explore that motive.
“They answer to the president,” Marcus noted. “The president appoints the United States attorney. He serves at the president’s leisure.”
Bristling at that matter as immaterial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jane Kim responded: “The government would submit that politics cannot justify a terrorist attack.”
“Politics here cannot justify 16 bombs being mailed,” Kim added.
Brushing aside national politics as “something of a sideshow,” Judge Rakoff said of the Trump connection: “Correlation and causation are two very different things, as the cliché would have it, and correctly so.”
In a brief that preceded today’s hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam Adelsberg noted that Sayoc’s threatening and hateful messages to elected officials long predated the crimes that landed him in court today.
Going back to 2001 and 2002, Sayoc posted furious missives on Facebook where he hurled misspelled racist slurs against black politicians including Obama, Waters and Holders, whom he called “nigers.”
“When I read what I had wrote online and now being sober and what I had did, I can’t believe it what I said,” Sayoc said during his courtroom address. “Now that I am a sober man, I know I was a very sick man. I should have listened to my mother, the love of my life.”
Sayoc now stands a possibility of leaving prison in his mid-to-late 70s, if released earlier for good behavior.
Sayoc’s sentencing comes days after three white men used military-style weapons to kill and maim civilians in El Paso, Texas; Gilroy, California; and Dayton, Ohio. Two out of those three attacks have confirmed signs of white-supremacist domestic terrorism.
The El Paso shooter uploaded an alleged anti-immigrant screed on 8chan, an extremist website whose server terminated service after the attacks.
Before the attack on the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the suspect urged his followers to read the 19th century proto-fascist tract “Might Is Right.”
Dayton’s police chief called it “irresponsible” to speculate as to the motives of dead suspect behind the attack on their city while the investigation is ongoing.