A federal judge today dismissed two counts against a 65-year-old Tennessee man who was convicted of plotting to burn down a Muslim community after an eight-day trial in federal court earlier this year.
Robert Doggart, of Sequatchie County, Tenn., was convicted of solicitation to commit a civil rights violation, solicitation to burn down a mosque, and two counts of making threats via interstate commerce.
Prosecutors said Doggart attempted to recruit about 10 individuals on right-wing social media sites between February 2015 and April 2015 to travel armed to Islamberg near Hancock, N.Y.
The former Tennessee Valley Authority engineer believed the community was a training ground for terrorists and wanted to see for himself whether its members were planning an attack on New York or the Delaware River. To that end, prosecutors played numerous wiretapped phone calls in February in which Doggart discussed using assault weapons, machetes, and demolition equipment on the roughly 70-acre commune. In one, he referred to children as "collateral damage."
But U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier said today jurors did not have sufficient evidence to prove two of Doggart's charges beyond a reasonable doubt—specifically, threats via interstate commerce, which are based on two phones calls from March 22 and April 9.
"The court determines there was not enough evidence for the jury to have found beyond a reasonable doubt [Doggart] made threats on those dates for the purpose of effecting a change or achieving a goal through intimidation," Collier wrote in an opinion, released today.
Interstate commerce refers to the purchase, sale, or transportation of people, money and other goods between different states—and whether Doggart made a threat via interstate commerce has been long-debated in this case.
"A communication in interstate can only violate [federal code] if it satisfies the legal definition of a 'true threat,'" Collier wrote in his opinion.
A true threat goes beyond a political argument, idle talk or jest, and as Collier wrote in his opinion, citing case law, it must be "conveyed to effect some change or achieve some goal through intimidation."
Defense attorneys argued at trial — and in several motions afterwards — that Doggart couldn't have intimidated anybody at Islamberg because its residents didn't learn about the plot until after the 65-year-old's arrest on April 10, 2015.
For example, when prosecutors called community member Noori Brooks, who testified that he and his wife owned a bookstore on the second-story of Islamberg's mosque, defense attorneys countered that Zavia Books didn't print its first book until May 2015 — which was after Doggart's arrest.
As Collier pointed out, the store "was preparing for operation in the months before that, buying its first piece of heavy equipment in approximately April 2015."
But where prosecutors fell flat, the judge said, was arguing that Doggart's conversations were serious enough "to be true threats."
"There was no evidence to support what is also required: that the words Defendant said to [one conspirator] were, in and of themselves, intended to further a goal through intimidation," Collier wrote.
"The government tries to gloss over this lack of evidence by describing [Doggart's] goal as intimidating his victims by committing, in the future, the firebombing and killing he was discussing on March 22 and April 9.
"But to be a 'true threat,'" Collier continued, "it must be the words themselves that are intended to intimidate, not any actions that may grow out of the words."
Doggart, who was scheduled for sentencing May 31, faced up to 40 years between all four charges, prosecutors said in February.
It's unclear now how much time Doggart faces.
Prior to Collier's ruling today, his attorneys argued that Doggart should spend closer to a year in prison.
Collier reset Doggart's sentencing date to June 14 at 10 a.m. after defense attorneys asked for more time to prepare.
Doggart remains imprisoned in the meantime in federal custody in Dekalb County, Ala.
This is a developing story. Please check back later for more information.