AN EMERGING ARGUMENT IN MITIGATION FOR THOSE CONVICTED OF HATE CRIMES IN THE TRUMP ERA: THE DEVIL—OR MR. TRUMP—MADE ME DO IT
Untitled, Watercolor, 12" x 24", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Anonymous Collector**
Fifty-seven year old Cesar Sayoc sent 16 bombs to people Mr. Trump had publicly declared were his enemies and enemies of the United States. Mr. Sayoc sent the packages through the mail in October 2018, and he was arrested on October 26, 2018. He was indicted on November 9, 2018. On March 21, 2019, Mr. Sayoc pled guilty to 65 counts including 16 counts of using a weapon of mass destruction, 16 counts of interstate transportation of an explosive, 16 counts of threatening interstate communications, 16 counts of illegally mailing explosives and one count of using an explosive to commit a felony. His crimes carried a minimum mandatory ten years in federal prison. The guideline range for his crimes, however, was much higher and could result in his dying in prison. His lawyers asked the judge not to send Mr. Sayoc to prison to die. They asked for a 121-month sentence.
Their argument in mitigation focused largely on the factors that drove Mr. Sayoc to commit these crimes. Those factors included “cognitive limitations and severe learning disabilities,” abandonment by his father and sexual abuse by a teacher in Catholic school, and social isolation and steroid dependency, all of which, they argued, made him susceptible, vulnerable, to the influences of Mr. Trump’s hateful rhetoric and that of Fox News. The defendant’s sentencing memorandum, linked below, is a fascinating piece of work.
Given the substantial increase in hate crimes under Mr. Trump’s presidency against people Mr. Trump seeks to devalue or declares are his enemies, I expect the “I did this for Mr. Trump” or “Mr. Trump gave me the green light” or “I was just taking Mr. Trump’s Tweets to the next level” arguments in mitigation of harsh criminal sentences will also increase.
Quoted below are a few of the “explanations” for Mr. Sayoc’s political radicalization that resulted in his sending 16 pipe bombs to some of the people Mr. Trump identified are his enemies and enemies of the United States.
“Mr. Sayoc began watching Fox News religiously and following Trump supporters on social media. He became a vocal political participant on Facebook, something he had not done previously. He was not discerning of the pro-Trump information he received, and by the time of his arrest, he was ‘connected’ to hundreds of right-wing Facebook groups. Many of these groups promoted various conspiracy theories and, more generally, the idea that Trump’s critics were dangerous, unpatriotic, and evil. . . . They deployed provocative language to depict Democrats as murderous, terroristic, and violent. Fox News furthered these arguments. For example, just days before Mr. Sayoc mailed his packages, Sean Hannity said on his program that a large ‘number of Democratic leaders [were] encouraging mob violence against their political opponents.’
"Mr. Sayoc was also an avid follower of @RealDonaldTrump, Donald Trump’s Twitter page, where Trump posted prolifically about his political enemies, including all of the recipients of Mr. Sayoc’s mailings. In his tweets, Trump portrayed these individuals as dangerous, corrupt, and un-American. For example, he suggested that anti-Trump protestors were paid agents of billionaire George Soros and that Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted for corruption and put in jail.
“Mr. Sayoc was particularly susceptible to believing these dubious stories of Democratic malfeasance. The combination of his cognitive deficiencies, steroid-induced delusional thinking, political naiveté, and his isolation resulted in Mr. Sayoc being unable to critically evaluate these claims. He lived alone in a claustrophobic van, did not have close relationships with his remaining family members, and did not have friends or loved ones to help puncture his alternative reality. He truly believed wild conspiracy theories he read on the internet, many of which vilified Democrats and spread rumors that Trump supporters were in danger because of them. He heard it from the President of the United States, a man with whom he felt he had a deep personal connection. He read it on almost every website he visited. He saw it on Fox News, which he watched at the start and end of his day. And it was reinforced to him on social media.
“In this bubble, Mr. Sayoc personalized the misinformation to which he was exposed. He began to consider Democrats as not just dangerous in theory, but imminently and seriously dangerous to his personal safety. President Trump did nothing to dissuade this message. In the lead up to the 2018 mid-term elections, President Trump warned his supporters that they were in danger from Democrats, and at times condoned violence against his critics and ‘enemies.’ They deployed provocative language to depict Democrats as murderous, terroristic, and violent.
“A rational observer may have brushed off Trump’s tweets as hyperbole, but Mr. Sayoc took them to heart. . . .
“The world of conspiracy and danger blurred with Mr. Sayoc’s real life, and he believed liberals, under the direction of Democratic leaders, sought to harm and kill him because of his support for Donald Trump. Mr. Sayoc’s political obsessions became increasingly debilitating, to the point that he could think of little else. . . .
“A few weeks before the November 2018 mid-term elections, Mr. Sayoc’s obsession with the Democratic leadership boiled over and he made the biggest mistake of his life. As the President ramped up his rhetoric predicting anarchy if the Democrats won the election, and Mr. Sayoc perseverated on the belief that an organized Democratic effort was to blame for the abuse he suffered . . ., he committed these offenses.
“In the fall of 2018, the ‘slow boil’ of Mr. Sayoc’s political obsessions and delusional beliefs manifested in his construction and sending of 16 packages to prominent Democratic figures. These packages included devices designed to look like pipe bombs. . . . [H]is obsessions became ‘increasingly severe, to the point that he could think of little else’ and he ‘resolved that he needed to do something to scare or deter the prominent figures in the media and on the left.’. . .
“His goal was to scare, intimidate, and emotionally injure the targets of these packages. But he did not actually want to kill or physically injure anyone, and he did not think that the devices were capable of exploding . . . . Mr. Sayoc targeted people he believed to be the enemies of President Trump and who he perceived as presenting a danger to the country. Ironically, he somehow thought that he was helping the country or defending it (and himself) from people who were working to do harm."
The judge gave him 20 years.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com
**Richard’s list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in a number of traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers