Courts weigh guilty plea of Tennessee militia member who threatened to blow up Muslim community

Robert R. Doggart really wanted to plead guilty and go to prison after he was charged with a crime fueled by anti-Muslim hate.

The Tennessee man got more than he bargained for.

And now, a federal appeals court is asking a lower court judge to sort out whether Doggart will serve five years or 20 years in prison for his plot to bomb and destroy Islamberg, a mostly African American Muslim village in Hancock, New York.

“Rare is the defendant who insists we find him guilty,” Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote Thursday. “Rarer still is the defendant who gets his way.”

Doggart will get his request to be found guilty fulfilled. It’s just a matter of which prison sentence will stick.

Doggart, 66, is currently at Lexington Federal Medical Center in Kentucky and is due to be released on Nov. 25, 2033 — the day after Thanksgiving. Doggart would be 81 if the longer sentence stands.

Plan of Attack

The FBI described Doggart as a member of several private militia groups. He came under federal scrutiny in February 2015 after posting to Facebook that a community outside Hancock near the New York-Pennsylvania border he named “Target 3” was planning a terrorist attack and he was looking for other “gunners.”

Anti-Muslim hate is endemic in the antigovernment militia movement, and Doggart’s plans foreshadowed a similar plot by a small group of antigovernment “Patriots” in Kansas who tried to bomb an apartment complex that was home mostly to Somali-born Muslim immigrants.

A confidential source for the FBI responded to the message and spoke with Doggart over the phone.

Doggart told the source March 6: “Those guys in (Islamberg have) to be killed. Their buildings need to be burnt down If we can get in there and do that not losing a man, even the better.”

Doggart and the source met twice, with Doggart discussing burning down the community’s three main buildings and even killing the residents if need be.

Doggart also showed the informant a shotgun and M4 rifle, the weapons he planned to use in the attack, wrote Sutton, who was joined by judges David W. McKeague and Amul Thapar.

After Doggart contacted a South Carolina man to assist in the plot and discussed recruiting a demolitions expert, the FBI shut down the operation and arrested Doggart.

He was charged with making a threat in interstate commerce based on his March 6 phone call with the FBI source.

A rejected plea

Doggart, a onetime independent Congressional candidate from Signal Mountain, Tennessee, attempted to plead guilty to making a threat in interstate commerce in 2015, admitting to using a cellphone and Facebook in an attempt to recruit a militia of “patriots” to attack Islamberg.

U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier rejected the agreement, saying the facts submitted did not amount legally to a threat.

Prosecutors then had Doggart indicted on four charges. He refused to plead guilty. A jury, after an eight-day trial, convicted Doggart.

Collier sentenced Doggart in 2017 to about 20 years in prison.

Doggart appealed, saying Collier should have accepted the guilty plea and the lesser sentence should stand. The appeals court concluded that Collier misinterpreted the law on what constituted a threat via interstate commerce.

Sutton wrote that “a reasonable observer” would have understood Doggart’s message as a serious expression of an intent to attack Islamberg.

“Doggart suffered plenty of prejudice from this misreading of the statute: He was sentenced to almost 20 years in prison rather than the maximum of five years he would have faced had the court accepted the plea,” Sutton wrote.

The case now returns to Collier to reconsider the plea agreement. If Collier accepts the plea, Doggart’s sentence will be reduced to five years.

If the plea is rejected a second time, Doggart’s appeal from his trial will go forward, but he will remain serving the 20-year sentence.

Photo credit AP Images/Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press

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