WASHINGTON - A former police officer with the District of Columbia Metro system who is imprisoned for trying to help the Islamic State will get a new sentencing after an appeals court vacated two of his convictions.
Nicholas Young remains guilty of the most serious charge against him. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit found there was not enough evidence to show that his obfuscation in interviews with federal agents was criminal.
Young, who converted to Islam in 2006, was under FBI surveillance for years before his 2016 arrest. Twice he traveled to Libya to fight with anti-government rebels there. He was ultimately caught in a sting operation after sending gift cards to someone he believed had joined the Islamic State.
When Young told agents that "Mo" had not gone to Syria, authorities thought he was trying to hinder their investigation. But he could not be charged with lying to the FBI, because he had actually told the truth. The man Young thought was an Islamic militant was actually an informant who never went further than Turkey and was then impersonated by an FBI agent in the U.S.
Prosecutors instead charged Young with two counts of attempting to obstruct justice, arguing that the police officer was savvy enough to know he was likely thwarting a grand jury investigation into his own conduct. He was convicted during a 2017 trial in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.
The three-judge panel was unconvinced.
"The Government has . . . failed to provide evidence demonstrating that Young foresaw a specific grand jury investigation or that he designed his conduct to thwart such an investigation," they wrote.
But the judges ruled that Judge Leonie Brinkema committed no error that would overturn Young's conviction for attempted material support of a terrorist group. He had argued that Brinkema wrongly allowed prosecutors to link his attempted support of the Islamic State to his interest in neo-Nazism.
"Nazism and militant Islamism share common ground - specifically, radical, anti-Semitic viewpoints," they wrote. "Even if, as Young contends, Nazism and militant Islamism are mutually exclusive belief systems, absolute consistency of belief is not a prerequisite to proving predisposition."
Brinkema sentenced Young to 15 years in prison last February, saying, "There is a real danger from someone like yourself."
Nick Smith, Young's attorney, and prosecutors declined to comment on the ruling.