For members of the Muslim community in Maryland who were previously unacquainted with how the American legal system operates in practice, the case of Ali Asad Chandia has allowed ample opportunity to get familiar with the language of legal documents, federal court proceedings and a steady stream of judicial disappointments.
Chandia, 35, was convicted of conspiring to provide “material support” to a “designated foreign terrorist organization” in August 2006.
Among the material support charges was the government’s allegation that Chandia helped ship a box of paintballs to Pakistan to be used by Kashmir liberation group Lashkar-i-Taiba. President Bush declared the group – which has been fighting India for Kashmiri independence for the last several decades – as a terrorist organization after the 9/11 attacks.
Chandia, a popular third grade teacher from College Park, Md., was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 15 years (or 180 months) in prison. A large portion of that sentence was based on Judge Claude Hilton’s use of the “terrorism enhancement” – a federal law employed heavily after 9/11 allowing a defendant’s sentence to be dramatically increased if the alleged crime can be considered a “federal crime of terrorism”.
Efforts to appeal both the conviction and the expanded sentence have been ongoing since 2006.
Defense Attorney Marvin Miller has argued the case before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals three times thus far. In the first- and second-round appeals, the sentence was vacated and the case remanded back to Judge Hilton for re-sentencing. At issue was the judge’s ability to meet the statutory test for application of the terrorism enhancement, i.e., that Chandia had acted “with the intent to influence or coerce government conduct” essentially by the use of violence. Particularly at issue were many factual misrepresentations in the Pre-Sentencing Report and an assertion by the prosecution that the terrorism enhancement should be automatically applied to material support convictions. The latest decision handed down by the Appeals Court on April 6, 2012, upheld the lower court ruling and the original 180-month sentence.
Chandia’s most recent appeal asserted that the district court had committed procedural errors at sentencing, namely applying a lesser standard of evidence – a preponderance as opposed to the tougher clear and convincing standard – to justify the expanded sentence; and misinterpreted facts that suggested that he had intentionally engaged in activities to further the “terrorist purposes” of Lashkar-e-Taibi, a group established in Kashmir to fight against Indian occupation and designated by the U.S. government as an FTO in December 2001.
Upon reviewing the arguments set forth by both the defense and the prosecution, Judge Robert Bruce King, writing on behalf of the three-judge panel, concluded that “a preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard of proof for establishing the requisite intent for the terrorism enhancement.” Although there seemed to be some consideration that the 15-year sentence was harsh, the appellate court nonetheless sided with the prerogative of the district court judge. “Put simply, ‘[w]here there are two permissible views of the evidence, the [court’s] choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous (Anderson, 470 U.S. at 574).” The decision further noted that the range set forth in the terrorism enhancement guidelines could have allowed for a far longer sentence, ranging from 360 months to life.
When asked for his own thoughts on the latest legal wrangling, Miller contended that justice is very difficult to obtain under the current political climate. “The sentence and the case are grossly inappropriate to even the government facts and it is a sad commentary on the well-being of the nation when a case like this and sentence like this take place. And here’s the kicker – under both Republican and Democratic administrations.”
Had Chandia prevailed at this stage, the appellate court could have removed Judge Hilton from the case and had the case transferred to a different judge. Chandia has 90 days to consider another appeal, this time to the Supreme Court.