By Austin Nolen
Keonna Thomas, a North Philadelphia woman who pleaded guilty last year to attempting to join the Islamic State, was sentenced yesterday afternoon to eight years in federal prison.
Thomas faced up to 15 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed under the law for her crime. In many cases, federal sentencing guidelines call for a sentence shorter than the maximum. In Thomas’ case, however, the guidelines’ “terrorism enhancement” made 15 years the recommended sentence.
Prosecutors called for U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson to impose the full 15 year sentence in order to recognize the gravity of the offense and to deter others who might want to join the Islamic State.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams argued that “others who might find themselves… excited by online extremists promising acceptance, a meaningful life, and piety, must be shown that providing material support to terrorists translates to a very lengthy prison sentence regardless of the circumstances.”
Defense attorneys, on the other hand, argued that Thomas was a woman with “anxiety stem[ming] from a variety of past, traumatic experiences” who “sought repose in a perversion of her faith.”
They alleged that Thomas intended to join ISIL only to marry a fighter and pointed to the case of Daniela Greene, a woman who actually traveled to Syria for several weeks for a similar motive. Unlike Thomas, Greene was an FBI analyst who married the jihadi fighter she was investigating.
Greene received only a two year prison sentence despite her misuse of her security clearance. Thomas’ attorneys argued that since Thomas’ conduct was less serious, she should be sentenced to four and a half years at most.
In response, prosecutors disputed the defense characterization of Thomas’ motivations. Williams repeated the government’s previous allegation that in her communications with Abu Khalid Al-Amriki, the jihadi fighter she intended to join in Syria, Thomas expressed an interest in becoming a suicide bomber.
During a closed hearing in August 2016 prior to Thomas’ guilty plea, Thomas’ attorneys alleged that the government relied on a selective editing of her conversations with Al-Amriki to support that claim.
In spite of this assertion, Baylson denied the defense request to discover information about classified surveillance techniques the government used in her case. Thomas pleaded guilty shortly thereafter.
During the sentencing hearing, prosecutors did concede that a 15 year sentence would be inappropriate in light of Thomas’ background, which was more fully detailed in sealed presentence reports filed with the court, but they insisted on a sentence longer than that requested by the defense.
Thomas also spoke briefly to the court, taking responsibility for her actions and asking to be reunited with her children to begin a new chapter in her life.
After Thomas closed her statement, Judge Baylson explained his sentencing decision, emphasizing his view that Thomas can be rehabilitated. But, he said, he also accepted the government’s view that Thomas might have become a suicide bomber.
According to Baylson’s judgment, Thomas posed a risk either to Syrian citizens or to Americans as a lone wolf terrorist. “We could all list the geography of the attacks over the past several years,” he said.
Thomas, Baylson found, showed an “absence of judgment” and needed a “substantial period of time in a correctional institution” in order to grow and become “ready to assume the burdens of being a free citizen in a free society.”
He also accepted the government’s argument that a long sentence was necessary to warn others against joining the Islamic State. “Deterrence,” he said, “is very key here.”
In order to balance the seriousness of the crime with Thomas’ mitigating circumstances, Baylson then sentenced her to eight years in prison, a little more than half of the maximum possible sentence.
Thomas will receive credit for the two and a half years she spent in detention without bail and be released in about five and a half years. After release, she will be on probation for 10 years and will be required to allow the government to install surveillance equipment on her computer.
The sentencing memoranda filed by both sides in this case are available here and here.
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