GREENBELT, Md. — Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson was sentenced Friday to more than 13 years on weapons charges, in a case that prosecutors say thwarted a white supremacist’s terroristic plot to murder a long list of prominent Democrats and journalists.
Hasson, 50, of Maryland, pleaded guilty in October to four federal weapons charges. But federal prosecutors said the charged conduct only represented the “tip of the iceberg” of the evidence against him. They labeled Hasson a “domestic terrorist” shortly after his arrest and said he stockpiled weapons and was plotting to “murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” They wanted a 25-year sentence.
Federal prosecutors laid out an extensive record of Hasson’s racists beliefs, a search history that included inquiries for the home addresses of Supreme Court justices, and an apparent hit list of media figures and Democratic politicians. Ahead of his sentencing, Hasson told U.S. District Court Judge George Hazel that he was “embarrassed” by his racist thoughts and web searches and sorry for the pain they’d caused.
“I have never hurt anyone in my life and I was not planning to in any way, shape or form,” Hasson claimed. He said he renounced his writings but was not claiming to be “magically cured of my biased thoughts.” But he said he’d work toward treating everyone equally, with the help of religious leaders.
The Hasson case has tested federal law enforcement’s ability to prevent domestic terrorist attacks and prosecute domestic terrorists. The United States doesn’t have a law that broadly makes acts of domestic terrorism illegal, and in general, federal prosecutors are hesitant to classify domestic terrorists as what they are.
While federal prosecutors did not charge Hasson with any terrorism-related offenses, they did ask for and were granted a terrorism sentencing enhancement that increased the range of the prison time Hasson faced under federal sentencing guidelines.
After the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Robert Hur of the District of Maryland told reporters that law enforcement would “look through the entire United States criminal code and use all of those tools in order to make sure that we can intervene and bring criminals to justice before harm falls our community.”
Liz Oyer, Hasson’s federal public defender, urged the court to consider Hasson’s long record of service to the country and his relationship with his family. She accused federal prosecutors of fearmongering by displaying Hasson’s cache of weapons in court, most of which he would be lawfully allowed to own were he not addicted to narcotics.
“We cannot incarcerate people for their private thoughts,” Oyer argued. She said that if white Americans had their private thoughts evaluated, we’d find a “terrifying number of closet racists,” but that the Constitution gives Americans the right to hold condemnable views.
She also said that Hasson didn’t treat anyone unfairly despite his views, and that she’d seen him “joking and laughing” with corrections officers ― “most of whom are Black” ― at the Maryland facility where he’s being held.
Dr. Stephen Hart, a defense witness, testified at length Friday about his violence risk assessment that declares Hasson a low risk. He said the government responded to the case “entirely appropriately,” but that Hasson didn’t need to be incarcerated based on being an ongoing threat to the public. He said Hasson was generally rational and clear-thinking, and called him a “civil and polite person.”
Hart testified that Hasson “had thoughts in his head that were racist.” But he said Hasson’s behavior with his “diverse” set of colleagues, as well as the “diverse” jail population, was much different.
Despite Hasson’s apparent hit list of media figures and liberal politicians ― which Hart said was simply a spreadsheet of people of interest to Hasson ― and his searches for the addresses of Supreme Court justices, Hart said Hasson was “all over the place” and didn’t have a firm plan. His desire to kill everyone in the world, as expressed in his memo, was “not a realistic or feasible goal,” Hart said.
“If he wanted to make a plan, he could have made a plan,” Hart testified.
Hart also said he wouldn’t mind living next to Hasson. On cross-examination, the government had Hart clarify that he himself was a white man.
Judge Hazel, a former federal prosecutor and graduate of the renowned and historically Black men’s college Morehouse College, said ahead of imposing the sentence that he did not credit much of Hart’s testimony. He made clear that he was not sentencing Hasson for his beliefs, but because he had been “actively in the process of formulating a plan.”
Oyer, the defense attorney, argued that Hasson deserved only probation.
“We don’t send people to jail for 25 years unless there are truly horrendous actions,” Oyer said. “There has not been a case like this in the nation.”
Oyer pointed to the handling of the case of Jeffrey Clark, a neo-Nazi who, like Hasson, pleaded guilty to the relatively seldom-used federal charge of being an addict in possession of a weapon. Oyer said the Clark and Hasson cases were “highly analogous,” and claimed that Clark’s actions were in many ways worse than Hasson’s. But she said federal prosecutors in D.C. took a more measured approach, and that Clark was released on time served after spending 10 months behind bars. She noted that Hasson has already served a year in custody.
Clark coincidentally appeared in a federal court in D.C. in a reentry hearing earlier this week, where a probation officer gave the court a generally positive report on his progress. Clark, who previously called his experience in D.C. jail “a blessing in disguise” that caused him to seriously reevaluate his life choices, is attending therapy on a weekly basis, and said he’s benefiting from it. He picked up seasonal work at a pop-up holiday bar in D.C. last month. He met with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in December, and will have another meeting with them soon. A federal judge overseeing Clark’s case wasn’t thrilled that a probation officer spotted Soviet Union propaganda in his room, but he said Clark seemed to be making good progress.
Hur, responding to a question from HuffPost after the trial, said the Clark and Hasson cases weren’t alike.
“Every single case is different. There may be some common threads from case to case, maybe a commonality in terms of the beliefs that are espoused by... [the defendants] in each case,” Hur said. But he noted that Hasson had prepared what he called a “hit list” of elected officials and media personalities whose views he disagreed with.
“He believed in the use of focused violence, and it was clear to the government and it was clear to the court that he intended on taking focused violence on those personalities,” Hur said.
“He is not being sentenced for his views,” Hazel said. “He is being sentenced for the actions I feel he was planning to take.”
Hazel said the racist beliefs that Hasson expressed are “deeply embedded” in American history, referencing 1619 ― the year that Africans arrived in Virginia.
“Mr. Hasson is just one leaf that has fallen from that tree,” Hazel said.