Feds OK’d Light Sentence for Anti-Muslim Threats

     (CN) – Federal prosecutors supported what some have called a light sentence for a Queens resident who made death threats against a prominent Muslim civil rights leader last month, Courthouse News has learned.
     On July 7, a federal judge in Brooklyn dealt Queens resident Bernhard Laufer a time-served sentence for sending chilling messages to staffers at the Council on American Islamic Relations and its executive director Nihad Awad.
     The reasons for U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie’s decision had been shrouded in secrecy, because both prosecutors and defense attorneys filed their memos under seal to discuss Laufer’s mental health issues.
     A controversy brewed as Awad told The New York Times that he doubted the sentence “will act as a deterrent for those who intend to target the Muslim community.”
     Documents unsealed on Monday in response to a Courthouse News request reveal that Laufer’s sentence fell under the federal guidelines range. The redacted files also shed light on why the judge issued his controversial sentence, and raise questions that could follow Laufer’s ongoing criminal prosecution for attempted murder.
     The Queens District Attorney’s Office charged Laufer, 56, with a hate crime for stabbing a worshipper in the back as the doors of the Masjid al-Saalliheen Mosque in Flushing opened for morning prayers on Nov. 18, 2012.
     While awaiting trial in that case, Laufer started targeting CAIR staffers with threatening messages roughly a year after the incident. The first missive said that the organization would be “DESTROYED” for supposedly having “set [him] up.”
     Laufer then sent death threats to Awad from his personal email address.
     “Dear Jihadi Bastard,” Laufer wrote on June 10, 2014. “Put your bodyguards on high alert.”
     A day later, Laufer referred to himself as “mad man” in another message to Awad threatening to “take your eyes out and your balls out before I kill you so you can feel a little pain that you put me, my mother, my relatives, and my friends through for the last 19 months for nothing.”
     CAIR staffers also reported receiving several phone calls from person who stayed silent and then hung up after the sound of gunshots resonated in the background.
     While Laufer’s case in Queens has stretched for more than two years, his federal prosecution related to the threats ended in a guilty plea. Laufer had spent 13 years in pretrial confinement, and prosecutors agreed with defense attorneys that no more prison time would be necessary in letters filed under seal.
     The U.S. Attorney’s office for the district declined to answer questions about what sentence it sought and why its letter had been shielded from the public record.
     Granting a Courthouse News request, Judge Dearie ordered the release of a redacted version of these letters, which hit the docket on Monday afternoon.
     Assistant U.S. Attorney Hiral Mehta wrote in the government’s letter that the federal guidelines range called for Laufer to spend between 15 and 21 months in prison, already well below the five-year maximum penalty under the statute.
     The government’s two-page letter does not elaborate on why it agreed to the lighter sentence except to say that prosecutors and probation did “not object” to it.
     Laufer’s lawyer Alexander Eisemann blamed his client’s behavior on his more than 45-year struggle with mental illness that has “required psychiatric treatment and occasional institutionalization,” according to his redacted sentencing letter.
     The New York Times reported that Laufer has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or manic-depressive illness, and that he required treatment for these conditions under the terms of his release.
     Despite this public-domain disclosure, the specific diagnosis given by Laufer’s forensic psychiatrist Alexander Bardey remains hidden behind black lines in court documents, and the defense memo requested sealing to protect his client’s mental-health information.
     “Mr. Laufer, though he undoubtedly has exhibited bizarre ideation that has led to various criminal behaviors in the past two years, appears to be motivated to continue treatment and follow his prescribed medications in order to stabilize and rehabilitate himself,” Bardey wrote, according to Eisemann’s letter. “Absent the acute symptoms of his mental illness, Mr. Laufer poses virtually no risk of violence to the community.”
     The day after his federal sentencing, Laufer received another ruling for his continued freedom at bail hearing in Queens, and he continues to be monitored through outpatient treatment under the terms of Dearie’s order.
     Another document obtained by Courthouse News shows that Laufer sent Queens prosecutors a notice on July 10 announcing his intention to raise a mental health defense at trial. The date marks three days after Laufer’s federal sentencing and more than two years after he was first charged in Queens.
     The notice cites psychiatrist Bardey’s reports as evidence of three types of criminal defenses, including an insanity defense.
     Bardey’s portrait of Laufer as an otherwise peaceful man stands in stark contrast to the grisly allegations that he left a worshiper at a mosque with dozens of staples and stitches on his back, thumb, head and thigh.
     At 4:30 a.m., Bashir Ahmad said he had been opening the mosque’s doors when he felt being stabbed from behind.
     Turning around, Ahmad raised his hands to protect himself from the onslaught to find Laufer yelling, “I will kill you Muslim motherfuckers,” prosecutors say.
     A pair of blood-stained glasses left at the scene contained Laufer’s DNA, according to the criminal complaint.
     Laufer faces at least eight years and up to 25 years in prison if convicted for attempted second-degree murder as a hate crime.
     His next court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 1.
     Laufer’s lawyer Eisemann said in a phone interview that his client’s mental condition is “greatly improved now that he is released from prison.”
     Awad did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the revelations.
     Meanwhile, the initially sealed filing of Laufer’s sentencing memos follows a pattern of secrecy detected in the Eastern District of New York.
     An NBC News investigation found that prosecutors there had pursued 58 cases against “John Doe” defendants in an article titled “Loretta Lynch’s Secret Prosecutions,” referring to the current U.S. Attorney General who previously served headed the Brooklyn-based district.
     The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief in support of the appeal to open up the secret docket. NBC’s appeal is expected to reach the Second Circuit later this year.

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