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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Who should sentence Tarek Mehanna?

Today, Judge George O'Toole holds a hearing to determine the appropriate sentence for Tarek Mehanna, the Sudbury man convicted in January of providing material support to Al Qaeda and seeking terrorist training in Yemen.

Read the Boston Globe story about the sentencing hearing here.

This case is fascinating on many levels and I have written multiple blog entries about it over the past two years. (Find Jury Box Blog posts on the case here). The jury determined that posting pro-Al Qaeda material online could constitute "material support" and that the dangers associated therewith overrode any Free Speech protections. It is important to remember, however, that Mr. Mehanna never raised a finger in violence against anyone. He gave no money to our enemies and his support for jihadist violence was equivocal, at best. So, what kind of punishment is appropriate for his crimes?

The defense is asking for a lenient sentence of fewer than 7 years in prison. The prosecution, however, is seeking a sentence of 25 years. Since federal sentencing guidelines are no longer binding, the judge will have a great deal of discretion over Mr. Mehanna's fate. But should he?

One of the fundamental rationales for using citizen juries in our criminal justice system is to allow them to serve as the "conscience of the community." Unlike the judge, who is embedded in the governmental structure for life tenure and who can be removed from "the word on the street," jurors are living in the community, with experiences that better reflect shared values about public safety, culpability and morality. Nowhere is this more strongly reflected than in the absolute right of the jury to nullify in the rare instance where justice and the law do not correspond.

It is odd, then, that our system has evolved so that jurors are asked to determine guilt or innocence and judges are asked to determine sentence. (Capital punishment offers the best known exception to this allocation of responsibilities.) This arrangement really handcuffs the ability of jurors to exercise their duty as the conscience of the community. We provide them with the most blunt instrument available, a simple "yes or no" vote on the defendant's guilt. Where there are multiple charges or lesser included offenses, jurors are afforded slightly more flexibility to craft a verdict that reflects their evaluations of the defendant's culpability.

The real discretion sits with the person who decide's the defendant's sentence. Ultimately, the sentence is the person't fate. The jury's verdict on guilt only hands off this decision to the judge.

I can think of no case that better illustrates the wisdom of allowing jurors to decide sentencing than that of Tarek Mehanna. There is a wide range of available alternatives. Reasonable people will certainly disagree about which sentence would be best, as well as what opportunities Mr. Mehanna should be afforded to reduce his sentence through good behavior or restitution. One's judgment regarding what punishment would be most appropriate in this case comes down to an evaluation of the defendant's culpability and how much danger his actions created. Given the uniqueness of this case, the multiple issues that need to be considered and the diversity of opinion in society on these issues, the final disposition of this case could certainly benefit from a lively and representative deliberation.

The rest of the world will view Mr. Mehanna's sentence as a reflection of our society's values and priorities. Maybe we should structure our system so this would actually be true.


  1. Mehanna was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison.

  2. There is no doubt the job of the jury is extremely crucial in any trial. The one in this post is an extreme case, but also one that makes an excellent example of why jurors act as the ones to prove whether or not they should be sentenced while the judge decides on the sentencing. Therefore, being part of a jury comes with a lot of responsibility.