WASHINGTON ― A South Carolina white supremacist who praised racist mass shooter Dylann Roof and longed to commit violence against Jews, Muslims and people of color has reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors that will likely result in a relatively short stint in federal prison.
Benjamin Thomas Samuel McDowell, a 30-year-old from Conway, South Carolina, was arrested in an FBI sting in February 2017 after he purchased a disabled weapon from an undercover FBI agent who McDowell believed was a member of a white supremacist organization. The feds said McDowell, who has white supremacist tattoos, believed white supremacists needed to turn their talk into action, and that he expressed a desire to “do something on a fucking big scale.”
As part of a deal with federal prosecutors, McDowell pleaded guilty last week to a single count of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. While the charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, McDowell’s sentencing range will be between 10 months and just over three years. The plea agreement isn’t binding, so the judge could potentially give him a lengthier sentence. But as part of the deal, McDowell has the right to appeal if he’s sentenced to more than three years and one month behind bars.
Mental health issues played a role in McDowell’s case. A mental health evaluation ordered by U.S. District Judge R. Bryan Harwell was filed under seal in December, and McDowell and his federal public defender said McDowell was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder. McDowell’s “cognitive functioning is very low” and his intellectual ability is “significantly below average,” according to a prior court filing, which indicated he’d received disability benefits until he was 18 because he was classified as mentally disabled.
But McDowell’s case still illustrates the differences in how the federal government approaches domestic terrorism investigations compared with investigations that involve foreign terrorist organizations. Had McDowell taken the same actions but been inspired by a group like the self-described Islamic State, rather than by white supremacists, he’d likely be facing a much different future, mental health issues or no.
McDowell came to the FBI’s attention the same way a lot of federal terrorism defendants do: through social media. McDowell, who had a felony conviction and evidently came into contact with white supremacists when he served time in prison, posted a number of troubling screeds on Facebook. In late 2016 he posted a link to the website of a synagogue in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and said he would “love to act.” In early 2017, he posted on Facebook that Dylann Roof ― the white supremacist mass murderer who killed nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston in 2015 ― did what white supremacists were supposed to do.
An undercover FBI agent posing as a member of the Aryan Nations soon met with McDowell, who said he was frustrated that white supremacists were too busy screaming about white power to get the job done.
“I got the heart to do that shit, but I don’t have the good training,” McDowell allegedly said. “I seen what Dylann Roof did and in my heart I reckon I got a little bit of hatred and I... I want to do that shit. Like, I got desire... not for nobody else... it just... I want something where I can say, ‘I fucking did that’... me personally... If I could do something on a fucking big scale and write on the fucking building or whatever, ‘In the spirit of Dylann Roof.’”
McDowell is similar to some defendants caught in FBI terrorism stings in that he may not have had the means or ability to carry out a plot on his own. McDowell, who did some landscaping work and had worked as a janitor at Horry County’s courthouse, ran into logistical problems when he was the target of the FBI sting: His mother would not allow him use her cellphone, and he had to borrow cash from his grandfather to buy the weapon from the FBI for just $109.
McDowell’s inability to plan an actual attack may, in the end, have been to his advantage. In court, according to a transcript obtained by HuffPost, a federal prosecutor said there was “no indication” that McDowell had a “particular target” or “particular plan.” The prosecutor said McDowell had “specifically requested hollow point .40-caliber ammunition,” and that he agreed to purchase a .40-caliber Glock and ammunition.
Bill Nettles, McDowell’s federal public defender, told the court that while his client admitted to the possession offense, there were “no overt acts, no planning, no plotting, no casing of any location.”
But the handling of his case is different, in part because of the way the law is written. The United States doesn’t have a criminal statute that makes domestic terrorism illegal writ large. If McDowell had been planning an attack on behalf of ISIS or another designated terrorist organization, he’d also be facing a material support charge in addition to the weapons charge. But he’s not facing any terrorism-related charge ― just a felon in possession of a firearm charge that is commonly deployed against defendants.
McDowell’s mental health issues likely affected his plea deal. But by and large, raising mental health issues hasn’t worked for many Muslim defendants facing federal terrorism charges. There are a few exceptions: Adel Daoud, an 18-year-old arrested in an FBI sting in Chicago in 2012, still hasn’t been tried, because a judge ruled that his belief in “lizard people” and his “pervasive belief that the Court and the prosecution are members of the Illuminati and that his attorneys are Freemasons” significantly undermined his rational understanding of the court proceedings. Daoud, who has been housed at the Bureau of Prisons’ federal medical center in North Carolina, has another competency hearing scheduled this month.
Mike German, a former FBI agent now with the Brennan Center for Justice, said the issue isn’t necessarily that white defendants are treated too gently, but that the fearmongering about radical Islamic terrorism has made it impossible for anyone to consider the actual circumstances in cases involving Muslim defendants.
“There has been such an effort to drum up fear of Muslim terrorism that it’s hard for these authorities to look at a Muslim person charged with terrorism the same way they would look at a white person,” German told HuffPost.
“It’s a whole-of-society issue, not just an FBI issue,” he said. “Because judges and juries are susceptible to the fearmongering regarding Muslim terrorism, it’s hard for them to make objective decisions about the threat these people actually pose.”
German says judges and juries are more willing to hear out complaints about government conduct in cases that don’t involve Muslim defendants accused of terrorism. Members of the Christian Hutaree militia, for example, had their most serious charges dismissed by a federal judge who rebuked the government for its conduct in the sting case.
“You don’t see that kind of analysis by judges in cases where there are Muslim subjects,” German said. “Quite the opposite ― you have the Newburgh sting case, where a judge acknowledged that only the government could’ve turned the main defendant into a terrorist because he was such a buffoon, and yet found him guilty and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.” The judge in that sting case, which involved defendants from Newburgh, New York, said she believed “beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.”
German said he believes that in the terrorism realm, the government goes after individuals who they know have mental health issues.
“You look at the cases where people who don’t have two nickels to rub together are given military-grade explosives and Stinger missiles and provided with room and shelter while the nascent plot is being driven,” German said.
As for McDowell, his guilty plea last Monday received little attention in a busy news week. The U.S. Attorney’s Office put out a statement two days after McDowell’s guilty plea, but the development received no national Justice Department press release, as it likely would have if McDowell had been facing terrorism charges. A federal prosecutor said the U.S. Attorney’s Office could revisit HuffPost’s questions about the case after McDowell’s sentencing, which hasn’t been scheduled.
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.