A federal appeals court on Wednesday overturned the conviction of 30-year-old David Daoud Wright for supporting a terrorist organization on the grounds that Wright’s trial judge did not give proper instructions to the jury. Wright’s conviction pertained to his participation in plots to kill police officers, overthrow the U.S. government, and behead blogger Pamela Geller at the behest of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The Boston Globe reported the appeals court faulted U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young for not properly explaining to jurors at Wright’s trial in October 2017 that “overwhelming” evidence was required by law to convict him on the charge of conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State. According to the report:
The appeals court said the error meant that jurors wrongly convicted Wright of a crime where the evidence was not as “overwhelming” as the law required, creating a constitutional flaw in his trial that could only be corrected by dismissing the conviction.
“We conclude that a rational jury could have found from this evidence that Wright could have been simply ‘role-playing’ with respect to following ISIS’s direction,’’ Justice David J. Barron wrote for the court.
The “constitutional error in the instruction [was not] . . . harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, because the evidence . . . fails to show that there was ‘overwhelming’ evidence that Wright had conspired to kill Geller and others ‘at the direction of’ ISIS,” Barron wrote.
The court sent the case back to the district court for further action.
Wright’s four other convictions remain intact. The Boston Globe provided a very brief summary of his arrest and trial that omitted some salient details. According to the report:
Wright plotted the death of blogger Pamela Geller, a controversial critic of Islam, with his uncle, Usaamah Rahim, and a third man, Nicholas Rovinski of Warwick, R.I., federal prosecutors say.
In June 2015, Rahim, 26, was fatally shot by authorities in a Roslindale parking lot after he advanced on them with a machete. Wright was arrested later that day.
Wright took the stand in his own defense and said he was only engaging in an “ISIS role-play fantasy” because he was obese and had no social life. But he was sentenced to 28 years behind bars and lifetime parole once released. Wright is currently housed in a federal minimum-security prison in Indiana. He remains convicted of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism beyond national boundaries, conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice, and two counts of obstruction of justice.
Wright was considered the “ringleader” of the plot to behead Geller by prosecutors, acting on a command to murder her issued by ISIS after she organized a 2015 art contest to draw pictures of the Muslim prophet Mohammed in Garland, Texas. Drawings of Mohammed are forbidden under Islamic sharia law, which Geller wanted to demonstrate did not apply to non-Muslims living in Western societies with guarantees of speech and religious freedom. The art contest was attacked by jihadi gunmen linked to ISIS with Breitbart News reporters in attendance.
Wright, who lived near Boston, plotted with his uncle Ussamah Rahim and a Rhode Island convert to Islam named Nicholas Rovinski to carry out terrorist attacks on behalf of ISIS. Rahim told Wright during a recorded telephone conversation that he had decided to shift targets from Geller to random police officers, who he referred to as “boys in blue.” Wright pronounced this plan “beautiful” and advised his uncle to delete incriminating data from his computer before launching his attack a few hours later. Rahim was shot dead by Boston police when he attacked them with a knife.
Wright was linked to a notorious ISIS recruiter and rising star in the global terror organization named Zulfi Hoxha, who reportedly went on to become a senior ISIS commander in Syria, and to a major ISIS propaganda officer named Junaid Hussain, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2015.
Wright was in close contact with Hoxha for years – possibly as early as 2010 – and helped him raise money for his pilgrimage to the ISIS “caliphate” to become a soldier for the terror state. Wright and his uncle Rahim knew the extensive conversations with Hoxha were deeply incriminating and made unsuccessful efforts to delete all traces of them after Hoxha departed for Syria.
U.S. Attorney William Weinreb argued Wright “intended to wage war against the United States on behalf of ISIS,” while the FBI called him a “full-fledged soldier of ISIS.” The prosecution wanted him sentenced to prison for life.
Geller agreed with that assessment. “There is no assurance that anyone can give me that he would not resume his quest to kill me and my relatives,” she said at his sentencing hearing.
Wright’s defense team argued for a lenient sentence of only 16 years, encouraging the court to see him “not simply as a terrorist, with all the fraught connotations of that term, but rather as the person he was, the person he has become, and the person he might be.”
Wright claimed he was just an overweight shut-in desperate for attention whose plan to murder Geller was merely “trash talk” to impress his online correspondents. His lawyers cited his model behavior while in prison awaiting his sentencing and said he had “gained insight into why he engaged in speech and espoused beliefs that are so contrary to the man he was raised to be.” His mother wrote a letter to the court saying he felt “extreme remorse” for the “disgusting and devastating” things he posted online.
“As a human, I’m so sorry,” he said at his sentencing hearing.
Geller told Breitbart News on Friday that Wright’s conviction for supporting ISIS was overturned “because an Obama-appointed judge simply doesn’t take jihad terror activity seriously.”
“Federal Appeals Court Justice David J. Barron said Wright ‘could have been simply been role-playing with respect to following ISIS’s direction,’” she said. “Yet extensive evidence was introduced at the trial showing that Wright was deadly serious, and was in touch with and even financing a top ISIS operative.”
“The problem is that it was Obama administration dogma that ISIS itself was ‘role-playing,’ and wasn’t a serious threat; it was just a ‘JV team,’” Geller charged.
“A court could only decide that he wasn’t really serious about jihad with a connection like that if the court itself wasn’t serious about jihad. And the mainstream media aids, abets, and furthers this obfuscation,” she said, faulting the Boston Globe for failing to mention Wright’s connection with ISIS heavyweight Zulfi Hoxha.
“Of course the Globe should have mentioned Wright’s connection to Hoxha, but that would have interfered with the narrative. The Globe wants to portray jihad plotting in the U.S. as largely fantasy and wishful thinking, and the truth about Wright would have conflicted with that,” she said.
Geller thought it was foolish to trivialize Wright’s involvement with terrorism by describing him as an obese loner who played too many videogames, noting ISIS training manuals specifically direct Western supporters to play military-style videogames to train for attacks and communicate with Islamic State officers.
“There is no proof that someone who plays video games will never be violent. Someone can be a ‘fat, failed loser’ and plot violence as well. Wright’s contact with Hoxha and plotting to behead me are quintessential examples of ‘red flags’ that should be taken seriously,” she said, nodding to current concerns about looking for signs of incipient violence from dangerous individuals before they engage in mass violence.
Geller was not confident Wright’s other convictions will stand and keep him in prison for a lengthy sentence.
“The courts are full of Obama appointees. I wouldn’t be surprised if his other convictions were overturned and he walked free. After all, ISIS is just a ‘JV team,’” she said, referring to former President Barack Obama’s famous 2014 dismissal of the Islamic State as the “junior varsity team” of terrorism.