Update (August 10, 2019, 9:00 a.m.): On Friday, yet another lawyer for a man charged with a violent crime blamed President Donald Trump's rhetoric for inspiring his client. Attorney Lance Jasper says his client Curt Brockway, who assaulted a 13-year-old boy for refusing to remove his hat during the national anthem, believed he was acting on Trump's orders.
As our country debates how President Donald Trump’s rhetoric incites racism and violence, one place his words and conspiracy theories unquestionably have had a parallel impact is in criminal courtrooms.
Already, defendants have begun raising objections to cases that include witnesses who have cooperated with federal authorities (which happens in the majority of federal criminal cases, from gang violence to fraud) because Trump has repeatedly used the biggest megaphone in the country to say that “flippers” (as he calls them) should be illegal. Now, we are seeing the emergence of the “Trump made me do it” defense in criminal cases — or at least the “Trump influenced me” mitigation.
Take, for example, Cesar Sayoc, who for two weeks terrorized the public by sending almost daily pipe bombs to public officials and private citizens alike based on their political affiliations. Sayoc was caught in 2018 living in a van covered in dozens of Trump pictures and decals attacking the media. In March of 2019 he pleaded guilty to 65 counts, including using weapons of mass destruction and the illegal mailing of explosives with intent to kill or injure.
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Sayoc could have been sentenced to life imprisonment — the recommended sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines — but his lawyers cited Trump’s words and arguments in their attempt to secure a lighter sentence. They argued that their client was a cognitively limited, sexual abuse survivor who thought of Trump as a “surrogate father” and came to believe in an “alternative reality” fueled in part by the president’s attacks on his political opponents. Sayoc, his attorneys wrote in a sentencing memo filed in federal court in New York on Monday, was a Trump “super fan” and “began to consider Democrats as not just dangerous in theory, but imminently and seriously dangerous to his personal safety.”
Ultimately, Judge Jed S. Rakoff sentenced Sayoc to 20 years in prison, a technically lighter sentence than what prosecutors asked for although practically speaking, it could mean life in prison for the 57-year-old defendant.This sentence was based largely on the judge’s acceptance of Sayoc’s argument that he did not intend for the bombs to detonate and hurt anyone, contrary to prosecutors' arguments. However, the judge did note that Sayoc’s troubled life, including his infatuation with Trump and his view of the president’s political enemies as demons, played a role. Rakoff was clear that Sayoc was not “insane in the technical legal sense of that word… [but] he clearly became obsessive and paranoiac, and it was in this state, made still worse by his steroid abuse, that he decided to commit the crimes for which he is now to be sentenced.”
Sayoc is the most high-profile defendant to at least partially blame Trump’s rhetoric in a court of law. But he’s unlikely to be the last, especially when you expand the legal defense to include other conspiracy beliefs shared by some of Trump’s most ardent supporters. In May 2019, in State Court in Staten Island, New York, Anthony Comello was charged with the murder of Francesco (Franky Boy) Cali, a leader in the Gambino crime family. In July, his lawyers claimed that Comello was fueled by the conspiracy theory QAnon, and that he “ardently believed that Francesco Cali…was a prominent member of the deep state, and, accordingly, an appropriate target for a citizen’s arrest,” which eventually lead to Cali’s murder. Comello also “believed he was a chosen vigilante of President Trump,” according to his lawyer Robert Gottlieb.
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Was Sayoc’s “Trump made me do it” defense successful? Not really — but it certainly didn’t hurt his attempt to procure a lighter sentence. Will Commello’s work? We don’t know yet. There will always be people who are susceptible to conspiracy theories and there will always be good criminal defense lawyers looking to make creative arguments on their clients’ behalf. But, in my over 16 years as a federal prosecutor, I never once saw the president’s own words and conspiracy theories repeatedly cited by people involved in such violent crimes.
Of course, that’s because no other president in recent memory has used the largest bully pulpit in the world in the way that Trump has. Trump’s words have consequences, as suggested again this weekend by the El Paso shooter’s virulently anti-immigrant manifesto. The president and his surrogates have argued that he doesn’t direct people to commit violence. But, clearly that can’t be the standard to which we hold the president. There can be no question that his rhetoric has contributed to a dangerous cultural moment in America. So, if nothing else, this president — who claims to be for law and order — should think about the many ways in which his words make our citizens less safe and the job of law enforcement more difficult.