Former Tennessee Valley Authority engineer Robert Doggart is escorted from the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building in Chattanooga on Feb. 16, 2017, after his four count conviction of planning an attack on a Muslim community.

The federal judge had a big decision to make when Robert Doggart's plea agreement slid across his desk nearly two years ago.

U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier could accept a compromise that made the 65-year-old former Tennessee Valley Authority engineer guilty of one count of transmitting in interstate commerce a threat or communication to injure others. Or, Collier could reject the proposal and let grand jurors decide whether Doggart made a "true threat" when he threatened to burn down buildings at Islamberg, N.Y., during a March 6, 2015, phone call with an informant.

some text
Robert Doggart

On that day in June 2015, Collier ditched the agreement, saying that prosecutors failed to show Doggart's speech intimidated others into furthering his plan to attack the Muslim community and therefore wasn't a "true threat."

For justification, Collier used a hypothetical.

Suppose a man planning a bank robbery recruited a friend to be his getaway driver. Suppose the man said, in all earnestness and apparent seriousness, "If any teller doesn't hand over the money, I'm going to kill 'em," Collier wrote.

"That communication is several steps removed from intimidating the tellers into handing over the money," Collier concluded, turning his attention to Doggart. "Likewise, communication in [this] instant plea agreement may have been intended to gain recruits, but there is no basis to believe anyone would see the communication as... intimidation."

Collier ushered Doggart's case forward with that action, and last month jurors found the 65-year-old Sequatchie County man guilty across the board on a stronger four-count indictment that prosecutors filed nearly a year into the case.

Now that Doggart faces up to 10 years on each count at his May 31 sentencing hearing, his defense attorneys are trying to convince Collier to return to that earlier stance and dismiss two counts relating to "true threats." Doggart faced five years maximum on the one charge in his plea agreement, which prosecutors didn't include in their four-count indictment after Collier kicked it out.

In a motion filed Feb. 24, though, defense attorneys argued that prosecutors never proved Doggart tried to achieve his goal through intimidation during trial, despite several phone calls they played of him talking to supporters.

"The evidence presented at trial are words addressed by a person allegedly seeking to enlist the support of other individuals he considers like-minded," attorney Leslie Cory wrote. "The words did not have the purpose of intimidating the residents of Islamberg or anyone else."

Cory said the words were intended as encouragement, not intimidation, according to all of the prosecution's evidence. Plus Islamberg didn't learn about Doggart until he was arrested, she said.

Cory also asked Collier to dismiss the guilty verdicts on counts one and two of Doggart's indictment, which revolve around him soliciting people to burn down the mosque on the New York community's property.

"Doggart talked about many things, as he had a habit of thinking out loud," she wrote, "but the closest he came to forming an actual plan that could have been put into effect was the 'recon' trip to New York. In the end, if he actually intended to go on that trip, it appeared from the evidence he was going by himself."

And not, Cory pointed out, with the handful of people the government accused of him of recruiting.

Collier must decide whether to dismiss the charges and will do so at a later date. He also said Friday the defense could have more time to compile Doggart's full medical record. After jurors returned a guilty verdict last month, defense attorneys said their client needed to stay out of federal custody because of his health issues.

But Collier said he will remain in jail in DeKalb County, Ala., until at least March 20, when the defense files its motion.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.