Judge spares N.Y. man from life sentence in X-ray gun plot to kill Muslims

Glendon Scott Crawford was sentenced to serve 30 years in prison rather than the life sentence sought by prosecutors. What does that mean for the Muslim community?

Chip East/Reuters
People stand outside the Masjid As-Salam ('House of Peace') mosque in Albany, N.Y. Glendon Scott Crawford was sentenced to 30 years in prison for building a mobile radiation device. He talked about attacking local Muslim institutions, including the Masjid As-Salam mosque.

A New York man convicted of plotting to target Muslims with a homemade X-ray gun will serve 30 years in prison rather than the maximum life sentence accompanying the charge, a judge determined at his sentencing Monday.

Glendon Scott Crawford, a Klu Klux Klan member convicted in 2015 of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and distributing information about weapons of mass destruction, received a 30-year prison sentence followed by lifetime supervision, should he be released. He faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years. 

Mr. Crawford is the first person to be convicted under a 2004 federal law that makes it illegal to attempt to produce or use a radiological dispersal device, a provision intended to protect the country from terror efforts carried out by the construction of a “dirty bomb.”

At a time when fear of hate crimes and terror attacks against the Muslim community appear to be rising, it’s unclear what solace, if any, the relaxed sentence could give the community. But bringing the issue to trial and recognizing it as a bias-based act of terror can provide tangible evidence of the hate running through America’s diverse communities and give acknowledgment to the nation's more vulnerable citizens, says Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney at Muslim Advocates, a California-based legal advocacy and educational organization.

“This is an example of how very real it feels. You have this individual in upstate New York who was trying to produce a device that could kill numerous people,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “I’ve never heard of anything like this. I think that often times we need these types of cases to actually go to trial and run through the judicial process in order to really understand the threat that we’re dealing with.”

At his Monday morning sentencing in the US District Court for Northern New York, Crawford didn’t feign remorse, and instead launched into a speech on physics and government regulations, the Times Union in Albany reported.

"You can't come to grips with who and what you are," Judge Gary Sharpe told Crawford before announcing his sentence.

An investigation into Crawford began in 2012 when the then-General Electric industrial engineer went to an Albany synagogue seeking an ally in the Jewish community. He reportedly "asked to speak with a person who might be willing to help him with a type of technology that could be used by Israel to defeat its enemies, specifically, by killing Israel's enemies while they slept," according to an FBI criminal complaint.

Rather than assisting him, members of the synagogue contacted law enforcement authorities, and undercover FBI investigators were sent to speak with Crawford. He unveiled his plan to created an industrial-sized, battery-powered radiation machine, describing the device as “Hiroshima on a light switch” and saying he wanted to use it to attack Muslims. The device, often dubbed a “death ray” during Crawford's trial, was intended to kill his targets with radiation poisoning.

After surveilling phone calls between Crawford and his co-conspirator Eric Feight, who pleaded guilty to charges related to providing material support to terrorists and received an eight-year sentence in return, and communicating with Crawford while undercover, FBI officials arrested him on the terror-related charges.

While the case tells an all too familiar story of hatred brewing against Muslims and other minorities, it also highlights a unified front against terror that’s growing across religious faiths. Where Crawford thought he might find support for his hatred, he actually encountered whistleblowers who helped put an end to his egregious plan: members of a synagogue.

This isn’t the first time Jews and Muslims have joined together in the face of hatred. As the Monitor previously reported, Jewish communities are reaching out to mosques and Muslims in an intensely divided and volatile political climate, offering support and reshaping the ways in which anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments are combated.

“This is a woman extending her hand to me, saying, ‘I want to get to know you. I want to be your protector. I want to have your back because I know what you’re going through, because of what the Jewish community has been through,’ ” Atiya Aftab, a professor at Rutgers University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies who helped to found the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, said of her first interaction with her Jewish co-founder, told the Monitor. “That was so compelling, so honest.”

While the 2016 presidential election has shed light on these challenges in US communities, Crawford's 2012 case shows that such crimes aren't new. Federal prosecutors had pushed for the maximum penalty of life in prison in his trial, citing the heinous nature of Crawford’s language and intentions as merit for the punishment.

"His plot to murder people he did not know was designed to, in his oft-repeated words, 'take his country back' from government leaders by forcing them to change government conduct he perceived as favoring Muslims," prosecutors wrote in a pre-sentencing court filing.

Instead, Judge Sharpe issued the more lenient punishment, which likely factored in a variety of minimal factors, like Crawford’s clean criminal record up to 2012. Invoking sentences on crimes that fall under the umbrella of terror has proved a tricky territory for judges to navigate, and some argue that divvying out harsher punishments for violent crimes made in bias may not actually serve to deter copycats or other acts of terror.

“The availability of a special enhancement also affords prosecutors and courts a vehicle of an expressive nature, to comment on their deep disapproval and condemnation of terrorism in a general sense,” Wadie Said, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, wrote in a 2014 Ohio Law Review article. “More debatable, however, is whether judges enhance sentences based on a need to be seen as condemning terrorism, and whether it serves the utilitarian or retributive functions of sentencing, as it is not clear how such sentences improve deterrence of future crimes or respond adequately to the harm done in each instance.”

But other legal concerns surrounding such crimes remain as well. This was a clear case of a terrorist plot. But in some cases, it’s difficult to push prosecutors to pursue investigations into what appear to be hate crimes – which are more common – but don't rise to the level of terrorist plots, and yet feel just as threatening to a minority community.

“Whenever we advocate for something to be viewed as a hate crime, what we are advocating for is not necessarily a higher penalty,” Ms. Ahussain, who leads her organization’s Program to Counter Anti-Muslim Hate, says. “We are actually advocating for acknowledgment of the fact that a person’s faith is the reason for the attack. What we want is an initial investigation into what happened and why.”

That misclassification happens frequently, she says, and while reports of hate crimes against Muslims rose by 67 percent last year, it’s unclear just how misreported the acts might be. And a lack of concrete understanding and accurate data of such crimes can rob minority communities of due process and the truth.

“I do think that there might be an added element of a disadvantage for the Muslims community,” Ahussain says. “Perhaps there’s implicit bias that is not explored. Perhaps someone ... is not fully well versed in what could be considered a hate crime for a Muslim person. I do think there’s a chance that some of these incidents aren’t being recorded as hate crimes.”

This report contains material from Reuters.

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