MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota man convicted of threatening FBI agents who were conducting a terror investigation was released from custody Tuesday and his sentencing was postponed as a federal judge weighs whether a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision will affect the case.
Mohamed Ali Omar was convicted in March after authorities say he threatened two FBI agents and an interpreter with violence when they went to his house last fall to question the family about his brother, who’s accused of attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group.
On Tuesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis moved Omar’s sentencing to September, saying he wants to wait for the Department of Justice to release its official position on the recent Supreme Court case.
In that case, the high court reversed the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who was prosecuted for making threats on Facebook. The justices found it wasn’t enough for prosecutors to show that comments Anthony Elonis made about killing his ex-wife and harming others would make a reasonable person feel threatened. They sent the case back to the lower court without clarifying what the standard of proof should be.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty argued the Elonis case doesn’t apply because the men were convicted under different statutes. But defense attorney Paul Applebaum said Omar should receive a new trial, and the “reasonable person” standard is a legal standard for a negligence case, not a criminal conviction.
Davis said the Supreme Court case was confusing and he didn’t want to rush into sentencing Omar now, and risk having a wrongful conviction on Omar’s record later on.
“I want to be very cautious in proceeding,” Davis said.
Omar has been in custody for seven months and Davis released him Tuesday with conditions. According to Applebaum, sentencing guidelines call for between four and 10 months. Prosecutors said guidelines call for a sentence of about three years, but they asked that Omar receive between one year and one-and-a-half years.
“I’m just really glad that, you know, I’m out, and I’m looking forward to a new trial,” Omar told reporters after walking out of the courthouse Tuesday. “Most of this stuff was just a big misunderstanding.”
Authorities have said a handful of Minnesota residents have traveled to Syria to fight with militants, and since 2007, more than 22 young Somali men have also traveled from Minnesota to Somalia to join the terrorist group al-Shabab. The FBI has been investigating travelers and recruitment efforts for years.
FBI agents went to Omar’s house last November after one of his brothers, Guled Ali Omar, tried to board a plane to San Diego with his U.S. passport and no luggage. Another brother had already left Minnesota to join al-Shabab in 2007 and remains a fugitive, and authorities believed Guled Omar was trying to get to Syria.
Applebaum said when authorities went to question Guled Omar’s family, the interpreter called one of their sisters a vulgar name and Mohamed Omar reacted.
“All I was really doing was just defending my sister,” Omar told reporters. “Once my sister was disrespected, you know, I just made a few warnings. I told Judge Davis that I could’ve handled the situation differently. … I let my emotions get to me at the time.”
Guled Omar was among six men arrested in April and charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. He and the others are in custody pending trial.
One of his co-defendants, Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, made his initial appearance before Davis on Tuesday. Farah had recently returned to Minnesota from San Diego, where he was arrested as authorities say he tried to get a fake passport, cross into Mexico and travel to Syria. Farah will return to court Thursday for a hearing to determine whether he will stay in custody pending trial.