Friend of Foe?: An Analysis of Factors Influencing Sentence Length in the Prosecution of Terrorism

The posts below are brief summaries of 14-week research projects designed and carried out by our student team. tPP plans to release the full studies as peer-reviewed publications in the future.

Friend of Foe?: An Analysis of Factors Influencing Sentence Length in the Prosecution of Terrorism

Megan Burtis & Liz Butler

Our research project utilized a grounded theory case study analysis to determine which factors influence the extent to which the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are adhered to in the prosecution of terroristic cases.

The cases we analyzed we United States v. Burgert et al., United States v. Boyd et al., and United States v. Dibee et al. All findings within our paper were the result of the analysis of the three case studies we selected. Using a grounded theory approach, the analysis of these findings yielded the creation of specific categories which provide a theory as to what factors have the greatest impact on sentencing. Our paper theorizes that government manipulation of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines plays the biggest role in determining the final sentence length of defendants prosecuted for terroristic crimes. Thus, the way in which the government views a defendant ultimately determines their sentence.

Four key factors were found to influence the government’s view of defendants which include the plea entered by the defendant, the level of regret the defendant shows for the crime committed, the degree to which the defendant continues to support the ideology which motivated their crime, and finally the extent to which the defendant cooperated with the government during both the investigation and adjudication. The evaluation of these factors allowed for defendants to be placed in specific categories, as shown in the table, which reflect whether they will receive sentences at the lower or higher end of what was recommended.

Our research tentatively supported our initial hypothesis that race/ethnicity, citizenship status, and “othered” status would be influential factors, but we would require more evidence to make this claim with any degree of certainty. Finally, these findings have significant implications for future research, specifically pertaining to the use of terrorism enhancements and plea bargains. Further research is recommended to see whether both or neither of these strategies are suitable as a counterterrorism measure. Further research into the generalizability of our theory will also be required to test its applicability.

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