WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — As anticipated, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. sentenced James Harris Jackson, a white supremacist, to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole mid-morning on Wednesday. It's the first time in New York state history that prosecutors have successfully secured a domestic terrorism conviction.
"American law enforcement has been slow to acknowledge the rise and scope of white nationalism and this has emboldened actors like the defendant," Vance said in court.
DA Vance: We have too often treated these crimes as something less than terrorism. The Court today has an opportunity to declare that violent white nationalism will not be normalized and that its perpetrators will be sentenced like the terrorists that they are.— Cyrus Vance, Jr. (@ManhattanDA) February 13, 2019
WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — When James Jackson fatally stabbed Timothy Caughman in the middle of midtown Manhattan on the night of March 20, 2017, he did so with one goal: to incite a race war.
Jackson, a 30-year-old white native of Baltimore, stalked the streets of New York for three days in search of a target. He attacked Caughman, a 66-year-old black man, from behind with a sword as he was collecting cans for recycling. Caughman worked with antipoverty programs and was a collector of autographs. He aspired to visit California, but instead became the victim of Jackson's murderous ideology.
Jackson turned himself in to police a day later. He plead guilty to the terror charge and will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars as the first person convicted under New York's domestic terrorism law. Prosecutors consider it a major legal achievement for a state that has been victim to some of the highest-profile terrorist attacks in U.S. history.
"It struck me immediately that this was not just a murder, this was not just a hate crime, it was something, if it's possible, to be even more venal than those and that is, it was an act of terrorism designed not just to kill, but to ultimately kill many more," said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance in an interview with Circa.
The subsequent investigation offered a window into the twisted mind that designed the plot. Jackson wanted to come to New York to kill black men because he knew Manhattan was the global media capital. He freely admitted that he had committed a "political terrorist attack," according to a Manhattan DA news release. It was his "declaration of global total war on the Negro race." Jackson hoped that he would set an example for others and inspire a race war, with the end goal of encouraging world governments to pursue a "global policy aimed at the complete extermination of the Negro race."
Even Jackson's use of of a gladius sword, a standard weapon in the ancient Roman army, was symbolic. White supremacists and fascist groups have long used Roman imagery for their own means.
"For someone to come up here with such a cruel, thought-out plan to attack the values of our city, to attack one of the races in our city in such a calculated and cruel way, we have to apply, in my view, the most serious laws that our penal statute applied permitted us to, assuming they applied, and I believe they did," said Vance.
Like the federal government, New York updated its books with new terrorism statutes in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The state has been victim to several attacks since then, so it may come as a surprise that New York's first state terror conviction comes nearly two decades after 9/11. One major reason behind that is because federal laws apply to attacks committed by foreign terrorist organizations. Therefore when groups like al-Qaida and ISIS commit an attack on U.S. soil, it becomes a federal matter.
Domestic terrorism is more complicated. While federal law defines domestic terrorism, it does not allow for the government to designate domestic terrorists the same way it does foreign terrorist organizations. In fact, they couldn't even charge a perpetrator for domestic terrorism if they wanted to.
"There's no standalone domestic terrorism criminal offense," said Tom Brzozowski, the Department of Justice's domestic terrorism counsel, in a seminar in December. "It does not exist."
"I can't really tell you why there was no freestanding crime of domestic terrorism that was enacted at the time, however there would be First Amendment concerns with creating a material support to a domestic terrorism organization," said Mary McCord, the former acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice. "Because that would require designating domestic organizations as terrorist organizations. And organizations in the U.S., people who come together based on their ideology are protected under the First Amendment. Foreign organizations don't have First Amendment protections, and so the U.S. can designate a foreign organization (as a terrorism group)."
At the local level, more than 30 states have enacted their own laws which create a "substantive offense for 'domestic terrorism,'" according to former Manhattan DA analyst Lisa Daniels. Despite a drastic rise in domestic terror attacks, state terrorism prosecutions are few and far between.
"So, prosecutors will make decisions based on what is the most readily provable offense based on the evidence that they have," McCord said.
For many state domestic terrorism statutes, the key factor comes down to intent. If a prosecutor can't prove the perpetrator engaged in their offenses to intimidate civilians or influence government policy, they may not pursue a terrorism charge.
"If you don't have that evidence, you maybe are just gonna go with a straight murder charge, or an (assault with a deadly weapon) charge, or whatever the case may be," McCord said.
For Vance, the Jackson case was clear cut.
"We have no choice but to apply the full weight of the law to his case," Vance said. "And if that in some twisted way gets him part of what he wants, then so be it. But there was no way that we could ignore, I think, our responsibilities to treat this case as a terrorist case."
But while he is pleased to have secured New York's first state terrorism conviction, Vance was careful to note that what worked in New York might not apply nationwide.
"I'm very cautious about saying what we do in New York should be done by other jurisdictions who have to analyze their own cases on their own facts," Vance said. "And I don't mean to be presumptuous. But I do believe strongly that we needed to call this act of extraordinarily criminal misconduct for what it was."
Domestic terrorism is on the rise. Here's why you might not be hearing about it.
See something, say something: student's warning helps stop plot to attack Muslim community in NY
White nationalist-connected Proud Boys mad FBI connected group to white nationalists