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Here's why judge cut Minnesota ISIS defendant's sentence

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U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis
U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis speaks to the media March 2, 2016.
Courtney Perry for MPR News file

Updated 6:25 p.m. | Posted 12:46 p.m.

A federal judge's order to reduce the prison sentence of a man who admitted to plotting to join the Islamic State in Syria raises new questions about whether outside influences pressured him against taking an earlier plea deal.

In a dramatic twist, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis on Tuesday shaved five years off the sentence for 21-year-old Hamza Ahmed, one of nine Twin Cities men who learned their fates this month in the nation's largest ISIS conspiracy case.

Ahmed will now spend 10 years behind bars rather than serve the 15-year sentence he received from Davis just two weeks ago.

Davis' surprise decision came after a heated and hastily called hearing Tuesday afternoon in which the judge accused Ahmed's attorney of not providing him with important information prior to Ahmed's sentencing.

"I'm extremely angry," Davis said, pounding the bench with his fists. "I shouldn't have given this individual 15 years, I should have given him 10 years. It's your error, not mine."

Hamza Ahmed
Hamza Ahmed
Sherburne County Sheriff's Office via AP

On Monday, Ahmed's attorney, JaneAnne Murray, asked if the judge could reduce Ahmed's sentence. Murray also filed sealed court documents detailing a set of circumstances that led her to believe someone improperly interfered with a plea deal she had sought with federal prosecutors. Ahmed pleaded guilty earlier this year, but only after he rejected an offer from the government in the fall of 2015.

In court, Murray told the judge that in hindsight, she should have raised her concerns earlier and more explicitly, but that she felt she lacked concrete evidence of improper interference.

"It didn't rise to the level of clear fact," she said. "I really regret now I didn't bring it to your honor's attention."

Late Wednesday afternoon, Judge Davis unsealed Murray's court documents filed earlier this week. They laid bare a series of events that led her to believe aggressive community influences were trying to persuade her client and two other defendants to refuse their plea offers. 

Hassan Mohamud
Hassan Mohamud is imam of the Minnesota Da'wah Institute.
Laura Yuen | MPR News 2015

The allegations at least indirectly involve Hassan Mohamud, a well-known St. Paul imam who was working as a law clerk for the trial team of another defendant, Mohamed Farah.

Murray wrote that Ahmed, her client, was prepared to accept the plea deal as early as September 2015, a decision his father fully supported. But after meeting with his mother at the Sherburne County jail, Ahmed reported a "change of heart" and decided to turn down the deal. 

Murray later learned from Ahmed and his family that Ahmed's mother, Fathia Good, ran into the mother of Adnan and Mohamed Farah — two brothers charged in the case — in a parking lot. Hassan Mohamud was a trusted advisor to Farah family, even before the brothers were charged, said their mother, Ayan Farah.

Ayan Farah reportedly told Good that her son should reject the offer, Murray wrote in the document. Two days later, Good visited Ahmed again and advised her son to not take the deal. Murray also stated she had been told that Mohamud, the imam and law clerk, regularly met with the families of the defendants and urged that the co-defendants "stick together and go to trial."

Reached by phone Wednesday evening, Ayan Farah disputed the account. She said Mohamud never counseled her or her husband to have their sons reject the plea offers. 

Scrutiny of Mohamud increased in March after yet another lawyer defending a man in the ISIS case, Zacharia Abdurahman, alleged Mohamud had been lobbying families to have their sons refuse any plea offers and take their cases to trial. 

Ethics rules prohibit lawyers and their staffs from trying to sway other clients who already have representation. 

Soon after the allegations arose, Mohamud and the attorney he worked for withdrew from the case. But the claims of meddling were so serious that prosecutors gave Ahmed and Adnan Farah a second chance to plead guilty, which the two men did in April. 

At Ahmed's plea hearing, a prosecutor said the government believed "there was sufficient evidence of impermissible interference which caused Mr. Ahmed not to have a full and fair opportunity to review the offer."

Hassan Mohamud did not return a request for comment for this story. He has said previously that he provided only spiritual guidance to the defendants' families, not legal advice. 

Kenneth Udoibok, an attorney representing Adnan Farah, said he believes Mohamud influenced at least three families in an effort to dissuade their sons from pleading guilty, much to the young men's detriment. 

Udoibok said the imam could have used his law degree and respected standing in the Somali-American community to make sure the defendants got a fair shake from the legal system.

"But instead, he wanted them to be cavalier with their lives, and look at the outcome," said Udoibok, who is also a pastor. "It's awful. I can't get over it. Seriously, I can't. Someone has to talk to him to tell him that you have abused your knowledge and your abilities. He should have helped them get legal counsel and stayed away."

Udoibok said his client's parents were keen on having their sons take their cases to trial. Udoibok said if he had not strongly counseled his client, Adnan Farah would be staring down a similar fate as his older brother, Mohamed, who'll be locked up for 30 years.

Murray told the judge on Tuesday she did lay out some of her concerns before the sentencing. She also noted that Ahmed, her client, told the judge at his plea hearing that he initially declined the plea offer to appease his mother but that he didn't know who had been pressuring her. 

To have blamed any individual for improper influence without direct proof amounted to "inappropriate speculation and conjecture," Murray said.

But Davis said the facts Murray disclosed in the sealed court documents this week went beyond that. He also said he has made clear that he would seriously weigh whether anyone was tampering with someone's decision to plead "because that goes to the integrity of the court system."

In court, he assured Ahmed, clad in an orange prison jumpsuit, that he would fix the sentence.

"I wouldn't be able to sleep tonight," he said, "if I sent you to prison for another five years that you shouldn't have."

Ahmed's delay in accepting responsibility hurt him. When prosecutors first offered him a deal in September 2015, he could have pleaded guilty to a single terrorism charge, according to a court document filed by his lawyer. At the time, he indicated to Murray he intended to plea, but weeks later had a "change of heart," Murray wrote.

The offer expired. And by the time the government put a modified deal back on the table the following April, Ahmed had to swallow an extra charge of financial-aid fraud. That stemmed from using his student financial-aid money to buy a plane ticket to Turkey.

Two weeks ago, Ahmed was sentenced to consecutive sentences for one count of conspiring to provide material support to ISIS and the additional fraud count. But Davis on Tuesday told that Ahmed the sentences will run concurrently. 

That puts the Savage man in line with three other defendants who were in a similar boat and received a prison sentence of 10 years. They, like Ahmed, pleaded guilty to the terror charge but stopped short of cooperating with the government.

Despite the additional charge of financial-aid fraud, prosecutors did not appear to think that warranted more punishment for Ahmed. They advocated for the same amount of prison time — 15 years — for the four defendants in Ahmed's situation. Three other men who were convicted by a jury will be locked up for 30 to 35 years.

After the hearing, Murray said she was grateful the judge amended her client's sentence.

"I believe the extra five years to my client was unjust and am very glad the court corrected that injustice," she said.

Correction (Nov. 30, 2016): An earlier version of this story used an incorrect reference for when Ahmed was prepared to take a plea deal. This version has been updated.