SILVER SPRING, Md. — A former Coast Guard lieutenant accused of plotting politically motivated killings inspired by a far-right mass murderer asked a federal appeals court on Monday to let him withdraw his guilty plea or else throw out his sentence of more than 13 years in prison.
In a court filing, a defense attorney argued that Christopher Hasson’s 160-month prison term was roughly four times longer than sentencing guidelines would have called for if U.S. District Judge George Hazel had not mistakenly applied a “terrorism enhancement” to the sentence.
Prosecutors didn’t charge Hasson, 50, with any terrorism-related offenses. He pleaded guilty last October to possessing unregistered and unserialized silencers, being a drug addict in possession of firearms and illegal possession of tramadol, an opioid painkiller.
The judge “clearly erred by finding Hasson’s offenses were intended to promote a federal crime of terrorism,” assistant federal public defender Cullen Macbeth wrote.
Prosecutors have until June 29 to respond in writing to Macbeth’s filing. The appeal was filed with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Federal prosecutors called Hasson a domestic terrorist and self-described white nationalist. In an earlier court filing, prosecutors said Hasson appeared to be planning attacks inspired by the manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in a 2011 bomb-and-shooting rampage.
Prosecutors also claimed Hasson drew up what appeared to be a computer spreadsheet hit list naming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Elizabeth Warren. He also mentioned several network TV journalists, including MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Joe Scarborough and CNN’s Chris Cuomo and Van Jones.
When investigators searched Hasson’s basement apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland, they found 15 guns, including seven rifles, and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
Stephen Hart, a defense witness who is an expert in violence risk assessment, rejected prosecutors’ theory that Hasson intended to carry out an attack.
Macbeth said prosecutors’ claims are primarily based on a handful of internet searches and two unsent letters he wrote more than a year before his arrest. Hasson’s lawyers have questioned why federal authorities haven’t produced any reports to support their claims that Hasson was actually a violence risk.
“Its failure to do so suggests that either the government conducted a threat assessment and found Hasson non-violent, or it was unwilling to conduct an assessment because it feared the results would show Hasson was not a threat. Both possibilities undermine (Hazel’s) factual finding,” Macbeth wrote Monday.
Hasson had faced a maximum prison sentence of 31 years at sentencing.
Hazel said he believes the officer was preparing to carry out a “mass casualty assault as a way to act out his white nationalist views.”
“The need to protect the public is of paramount importance,” the judge said.
Hasson said he has never harmed anybody in his life and wasn’t planning to hurt anyone “in any way, shape or form.” But he apologized to his family, his colleagues and to the public, saying he knew his actions alarmed many people.
“I am embarrassed by these things and sorry for the pain they have caused,” he said.
Adm. Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard’s commandant, has said Hasson was being “involuntarily separated” from the guard without “any rights, benefits and retirement pay, which he may have otherwise been entitled.”