WASHINGTON ― A South Carolina white supremacist who told an undercover FBI agent he wanted to commit a “f**king big-scale” attack “in the spirit of Dylann Roof” was sentenced to less than three years in federal prison on Wednesday.
Benjamin Thomas Samuel McDowell, a 31-year-old from Conway, South Carolina, told an FBI agent posing as a member of the Aryan Nations that he longed to commit violence against Jews, Muslims and people of color. He pleaded guilty in March to a single count of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition as part of a plea deal he reached with federal prosecutors.
McDowell was sentenced on Wednesday to two years and nine months in federal prison and three years of supervised release, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina. Under the terms of his plea deal, McDowell would have had the right to appeal if he’d been sentenced to more than three years.
It appears that mental health issues played a significant role in the plea deal. McDowell was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder, has “very low” cognitive functioning, and his intellectual ability is “significantly below average,” according to an earlier court filing from his attorney.
William F. Nettles, the top federal public defender in South Carolina, said McDowell was sentenced to the high end of the sentencing guideline range.
“I raised McDowell’s mental health history and cognitive disability (IQ in first percentile), which was not accounted for by the guideline,” Nettles said. “The judge decided on the high end.”
McDowell first came on the FBI’s radar because of screeds he wrote on Facebook. Like many targets of FBI sting operations, he ran into logistical problems that might have prevented him from carrying out an attack. McDowell’s mom wouldn’t let him use her cell phone, and McDowell had to borrow cash from his grandfather to purchase a disabled gun from the FBI for just $109.
Had McDowell been a supporter of a designated foreign terrorist organization such as the Islamic State group, the government would have been able to charge him with material support for a terrorist organization, a charge not applicable to supporters of domestic organizations like the Aryan Nations.
Neither Dylann Roof nor James Alex Fields Jr. ― the neo-Nazi who slammed his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, killing Heather Heyer ― were charged with terrorism-related federal crimes. Both instead faced hate crimes charges.
Many FBI agents and former Justice Department officials believe that Congress should pass a domestic terrorism statute that would place foreign and domestic terrorism on the same plane.
The Justice Department did recently charge a white supremacist with a terrorism-related crime, but only because the target of his attack ― an Amtrak train ― is specifically protected under a federal terrorism statute. Federal prosecutors have also reached a plea deal with the defendant in that case, Taylor Michael Wilson. He’s set to appear in federal court on Thursday for a change of plea hearing, although the details of his plea deal are unknown.
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter covering the Justice Department, federal law enforcement, criminal justice and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.