Last week, James Jackson boarded a bus from Baltimore to New York, and on March 20 he plunged an 18-inch sword into Timothy Caughman’s body.
Jackson is white and Caughman was black.
Caughman was puttering around on 36th Street looking for cans to recycle. Jackson told investigators he’d come to New York to kill black men — to make a statement in the media capital of the world.
On Monday, Jackson was hit with state charges of murder as terrorism, in addition to other offenses.
The first- and second-degree murder as terrorism charges he’s facing are so rare in New York that the state Division of Criminal Justice Services has recorded only two other instances over nearly two frenzied decades of existence.
Origins of the terrorism law
The world changed for many on 9/11, and six days later the New York penal code changed, too. The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 added state penalties for those who committed acts of terrorism. Who were terrorists? Those who “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or “influence the policy of a unit of government by intimidation or coercion,” or “affect the conduct of a unit of government by murder, assassination or kidnapping.”
The act didn’t appear entirely out of thin air. In 1998, former State Sen. Michael Balboni was a fresh face, assigned by leadership to a task force on water resources. “Something for the young kid to do,” Balboni remembers. By 1999, he was reading books about the dangers of bioweapons on the water supply. By the spring of 2001, he and former Gov. George Pataki supported an anti-terrorism law that got some pushback. By the fall, terrorism was on the whole legislature’s mind. The Anti-Terrorism Act passed the assembly 131 to 6, the senate 53 to 1.
Among other things, the act created the enhanced charges. But there was the difficulty of how to define terrorism.
Balboni says it was difficult to capture what constitutes terrorism: “It almost becomes the old thing about pornography, you know it when you see it.” All instances of terrorism, in his view, had common features: innocent civilians, nihilistic cause.
The act’s “legislative findings” section lists other terrorist attacks leading up to 9/11 that made this act necessary. They were international in origin except for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In the days after 9/11, “certainly what we were thinking about was jihad,” Balboni says.
Yet in 2007, a gang member in the Bronx was found guilty under the state terrorism statue for the first time, according to media accounts. It wasn’t jihad — he had fatally shot a young girl while attacking someone else outside a christening party.
Civil liberties defenders decried the use of the statute. Today, some still do.
Robert Perry, legislative director of the NYCLU, says “the definition of terrorism in New York law is imprecise and vague and overbroad and therefore subject to abuse and misapplication.” In Perry’s view, New York’s penal code “imposes severe punishment sentences” already for serious offenses like homicide. There are hate crime statutes to make those punishments even more severe. Did the state need more?
If not now, when?
Well, we have the statutes now. In 2001, in the wake of 9/11, legislators didn’t think regular charges fit the enormity of terrorism. Other crimes have been as enormous in American history: years of pervasive racial lynching, for example. When Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American church-goers in Charleston, South Carolina and was found guilty of federal hate crimes, some questioned whether there was a label heinous enough for such an act, directed not at a single person but a group. Perhaps terrorism.
To criminal justice reform advocate (and law student) Keegan Stephan, “terrorism” is often reserved for Muslim-American defendants alone. If you charge them with forms of terrorism but “don’t charge James Jackson with the same for actually killing a black man for the stated purpose of sending a message, it would be another glaring example of the racial bias in our criminal justice system,” Stephan wrote in an email.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance took a broad view in his statement on Jackson’s indictment: “James Jackson prowled the streets of New York for three days in search of a black person to assassinate in order to launch a campaign of terrorism against our Manhattan community and the values we celebrate.”
Still, according to Balboni, an architect of the statute: “this application is contrary to the intent that I had on the day, given the context.” It’s a horrible crime and a hate crime, he says, but “this is not terrorism.”
In the end, what difference will the semantic argument make?
It will boost the punishment Jackson faces if convicted, from a minimum of 20 years to life for “plain” hate crime murder to a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Critics will caution against a powerful tool that can be misused or misapplied. Those in favor will applaud the state taking a racially motivated murder seriously. None of it will do any good for Caughman, another New Yorker slain by hate and unimaginable violence.