CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — A federal judge on Wednesday resentenced Robert Doggart, a Tennessee man convicted on charges surrounding a plot to burn down a New York mosque, to 120 months in prison after an appeals court determined the house of worship was not involved in interstate commerce.
The former congressional candidate was charged in 2015 for soliciting others to destroy the mosque of Islamberg, New York, a small community in the Catskill Mountains near the Pennsylvania state line.
After Assistant U.S. Attorney Perry Piper argued a terrorism enhancement applied, District Judge Curtis Collier, a Bill Clinton appointee, said the underlying facts of the case remained unchanged and handed down the 120-month maximum statutory sentence for the conviction of solicitation to commit a civil rights offense.
During the hearing partially conducted over telephone due to Covid-19, Collier said he had received many letters from the residents of Islamberg describing the long-lasting impact Doggart’s plot had on their peaceful community.
The excerpts of more than a half-dozen letters that Collier read said some members of Islamberg started locking their doors and become anxious whenever a strange car drives through the neighborhood. They also worried about Doggart’s accomplices.
According to phone recordings of Doggart, he had said he did not “want to have to kill children, but there’s always collateral damage.”
According to court documents, Doggart thought the community was planning an attack on New York City, so he began talking with others about attacking it, using Molotov cocktails, guns with silencers and machetes.
Originally sentenced to 235 months on two counts in 2017, Doggart appealed to the Sixth Circuit. In January, it reversed his arson solicitation conviction because the house of worship had a more local and spiritual connection, and typically states prosecute instances of arson.
“In everyday English, one does not think of a mosque that serves a 200-person local community as a building used in commerce, much less interstate commerce,” the Sixth Circuit wrote in its 13-page decision. “There may be plenty of good reasons to prosecute Robert Doggart for his deranged plan. But the words of this statute are not one of them.”
Delivering his allocution statement by phone, Doggart said the time he spent in prison gave him a “more developed level of humility” and if he were released he would use his engineering skills to better the world.
“I am deeply sorrowed and contrite,” Doggart said, adding he prays the futures of the residents of Islamberg would be fulfilling and joyful. Furthermore, he said he is not obsessed with the town in New York.
“Let mercy triumph this fine day,” Doggart urged the court.
Myrlene Marsa, the federal defender representing Doggart, said Doggart was experiencing health problems, underwent a divorce, lost his job and had recently come up short in his 2014 congressional run when he began interacting with people on Facebook and the internet that he now recognizes held dangerous views.
Mara had argued that given Doggart’s lack of previous criminal history, he should have been resentenced to 51 to 63 months. She told the court Doggart had almost served 47 months at the time of the hearing.
But Collier said he “rather vividly” remembered Doggart’s allocution years before where Doggart said the reason he was being prosecuted is because he was an old, white male, and not, for instance, bragging about military tactics.
“He really didn’t have any insight into his action and what he had done,” Collier said.
Brian Levin, director at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said the Sixth Circuit’s January ruling came at a time when houses of worship have been facing higher levels of risk from extremist violence.
The Sixth Circuit’s ruling in Doggart’s case was mostly a technical one, Levin said, but was narrower than how the courts decades ago looked at the commerce clause and did not consider Congress’ interest in protecting houses of worship. In the 1990s, Levin noted, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigated church arsons.
Furthermore, Levin said the Sixth Circuit’s ruling has implications for how federal arson statutes are used in response to the current political protests. “I think it strains credulity to say that arson is merely a personal vendetta or insurance fraud crime when we’re increasingly seeing it under the auspices of conflictual political events and particularly the history we’ve had with arsons and explosives used against Black churches,” Levin said.