Prosecutors wanted Nicholas Teausant sent to prison for nine years for trying to join the Islamic State back in 2014.
The defense argued that about 2 1/2 years was more appropriate for the young man from the Lodi-area town of Acampo, saying his mental issues might be irreparably worsened by a long stretch in federal prison.
U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez didn’t go for either pitch Tuesday, saying any crime related to terrorism is too dangerous to the public.
“There is no room for error,” Mendez told Teausant as he sentenced him to 12 years in prison and another 25 years of supervision after his release. “The risks are too high.”
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Teausant, 22, likely will be released at age 30, given the more than two years he has already served in custody and another 22 months of good time credits he will earn if he does not act out in prison.
The sentencing, which could have resulted in a maximum term of 15 years, played out in an hourlong hearing in a packed 14th-floor courtroom in the federal courthouse in downtown Sacramento.
Mendez handed down the sentence following an apology from a visibly nervous Teausant, who stood before him in orange jail garb.
“I want to say I’m very sorry …” Teausant said as he read his hand-written remarks from a yellow slip of paper. “I wanted to be part of something.
“I didn’t think my life was worth anything.”
The sentence brings to an end one of the nation’s earliest cases involving a U.S. citizen bent on traveling overseas to fight with Islamic State against the Syrian government.
At the time of his March 2014 arrest, Islamic State was largely unknown in this country and had yet to earn its reputation for barbaric acts like the video recordings of beheadings and other gruesome slayings of journalists and soldiers.
Teausant apparently knew little about the group at the time, stumbling over its name in a conversation he had with an undercover FBI operative while he was being investigated.
He was a community college student and National Guard washout who converted to Islam to impress a young woman, then came under suspicion after a series of online postings that included references to a hit list for those accused of “crimes against Islam.”
He told government undercover operatives of his plans for attacks in the United States, boasts that the defense said he never actually could have carried out.
Teausant’s life changed irreversibly when he boarded an Amtrak train bound for Seattle as part of his plan to travel to Canada and then on to Syria to join the terrorist group.
He was on a bus headed across the border at Blaine, Wash., when federal agents stopped it and took him into custody. Although he hoped to blend in as a college student heading for a skiing trip, Teausant’s lawyers noted at Tuesday’s hearing that he was dressed in camouflage clothing and combat boots.
Once in custody, federal defender Benjamin Galloway said, “he bonded with the FBI agents and talked for hours, and thought it was cool when he got to wear an FBI jacket.”
The defense has argued that Teausant suffers from mental illness – at one point his case was put on hold while he was evaluated by psychiatric specialists – and that his unstable, abusive childhood and chronic marijuana use essentially rendered him a hapless young man who could never have become a terrorist, and probably would have been captured and killed had he made it to Syria.
Galloway noted that Teausant rejected informants’ suggestions that he accept “explosives” from them, and that his crime consisted of “99 percent talk and 1 percent train ride.”
Since his arrest, Galloway added, Teausant has matured and made great strides in improving his mental health with medication.
“He shouldn’t be sentenced for what was in his untreated head 27 months ago,” Galloway said.
Prosecutors took a different view. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jean Hobler told the judge that her office “has a duty to protect the public, as does this court.”
Mendez acknowledged that Teausant’s effort to join the Islamic State was “one of the least successful wannabe or would-be terrorist” cases to arise since the group began its worldwide recruiting efforts.
But he added that the nature of the charge – attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization – was “incredibly troubling to the court,” and that the government’s suggestion of a nine-year term was “somewhat surprising.”
“Your ultimate goal was to join a terrorist organization …” Mendez told Teausant. “It was your choice to go down that road.
“There are consequences for that choice.”
Teausant’s lawyer acknowledged after court his disappointment at the sentence, which he said “was not about individual justice.”
“This sentence had little to do with the damaged person standing before the court, or his ineffectual acts,” Galloway said. “This sentence was based on the fallacy of general deterrence, but high sentences do not deter these crimes.
“That’s not how mentally ill youths like Nick Teausant think, and it’s an unfortunate basis for such a lengthy sentence.”
During sentencing, Mendez acknowledged that “prison will be hard” for Teausant, who stands 6-foot, 3-inches tall, weighs 155 pounds and wears thick glasses. His lawyers describe him as socially awkward and vulnerable.
Mendez also acknowledged that Teausant was 19 at the time of his arrest and had no previous criminal record. But he added that persons of that age are old enough to go off to war and be responsible adults.
“You were old enough to know that what you were attempting to do was wrong,” the judge said. “You, in effect, went from zero to 100 your first time out.”
The judge agreed to recommend that Teausant be sent to a federal prison near Phoenix to be close to his father and stepmother.
But, the judge said, Teausant will have to be closely supervised for 25 years after his release.
“Terrorism has to become a zero-tolerance crime, Mr. Teausant,” Mendez delcared. “There is no margin for error.”