A federal judge who voiced doubts about a man’s remorse and commitment against jihadist violence Monday sentenced him to 30 years in prison for plotting to attack the U.S. Capitol, drawing an outburst in support of Islam as he was led away in shackles.
U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith also ordered lifetime probation after prison for 22-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell, including monitoring of his computer use and sharp restrictions on what he can do online. He earlier offered apologies and urged her to give him “a second chance,” then afterward called the court system “rigged” and shouted: “All-h is in control, not this judge!”
Beckwith said his plot was “horrific,” saying Cornell “took active steps to commit mass murder. …. Additionally, he wanted to assassinate the president.”
Cornell, of suburban Cincinnati, earlier pleaded guilty to three charges, including attempted murder of U.S. officials and employees in a plot in support of the Islamic State group.
A psychologist who has met with Cornell repeatedly since his January 2015 arrest testified for the defense, which contended that he was a withdrawn loner with mental issues who self-radicalized while spending hours reading online “radical Islamic propaganda.” Attorney Martin Pinales scoffed at Cornell’s plan to carry a semi-automatic rifle into the Capitol building during President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address and open fire on the president, members of Congress and others.
“This whole plan was a magical plan,” Pinales said, depicting it as a result of Cornell’s distorted thinking influenced by a confidential informant.
Prosecutors played a 15-minute video of Cornell excitedly discussing attacking Washington with the informant and mentioning the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Times Square on Jan. 1 as places that could have been possible targets. Authorities said Cornell also discussed attacking the Israeli embassy in Washington.
Timothy Mangan, an assistant U.S attorney, said Cornell had praised and tried to learn from a gunman’s 2014 attack on the Canadian Parliament and pointed out that Cornell was arrested in a gun shop parking lot after buying two M-15 semi-automatic rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition. He also cited “lone-wolf” attacks including a car-and-knife assault last week at Ohio State University.
“These attacks can happen and they do happen,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin C. Glassman said afterward.
The defense described the confidential informant as an older Muslim man who was being paid and trying to lessen his own terrorism-related case while becoming someone Cornell looked up to and trusted. Prosecutors said Cornell, with his father’s help, tried to identify the man publicly and get retribution after his arrest. They also said Cornell circumvented a jail computer terminal’s security program to issue calls for others to fight “the disbelieving people of America.”
After Cornell’s parents and other relatives tearfully urged the judge to give him a lighter sentence than the 30 years prosecutors wanted, Cornell stood and addressed her and apologized to his family, the Muslim community and the American people.
“I’m not a bad person,” he said, saying he broke with radical violence and began in prison practicing a peaceful faith that holds all lives sacred.
“Just because I am a Muslim or have a beard doesn’t make me a terrorist,” said Cornell, who also said he has been attacked verbally and physically for his faith while in prison.
Beckwith said Cornell’s remorse “seems very late in coming” and she believes that “he remains susceptible to falling prey to other jihadist propaganda.”
“Poor kid,” his father, John, said after the sentencing. “Totally unfair.”
Last month, a federal judge sentenced another suburban Cincinnati man, 22-year-old Munir Abdulkader, to 20 years in prison for a plot to behead a military veteran and then attack a police department in support of the Islamic State terror group. His attorney also cited the role of a confidential informant in steering him.