It’s a scenario seen with frightening frequency. An impressionable young man or teen is influenced by outside forces due partly to the convenience and secrecy of the Internet.

Over the course of months, he is persuaded that his mission is to kill. To kill his classmates. To kill his parents. Or perhaps someone thousands of miles away.

By a stroke of luck or due diligence, the young man’s plot is foiled, and he is arrested. What happens to him next raises perplexing questions about the “adultification” of juveniles in the justice system, about race and ethnicity and about the discretion of prosecutors and judges.

We’ve had at least two cases in Minnesota recently in which the goals of potential killers were similar.

In Waseca, John David LaDue plotted to kill his classmates, assembling weapons and bomb materials in a storage locker. He had studied previous mass murders. His target was his school.

In a plea deal agreed to by the judge, LaDue was given a long probation and treatment.

As this newspaper reported this week, state legislators are now thinking of strengthening the law to make prosecution easier against those are caught before they actually attempt a crime. The LaDue case raises the question of where to draw the line on thoughts and actions, a question that varies between states and at the federal level.

Consider the other recent case. Five young Somali-American men were charged with conspiracy to commit murder outside the U.S., adding to previous charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization. None ever left the U.S., though prosecutors allege that they tried.

The cases of the Somali men are pending, but they face serious jail time, up to life in prison.

When I wrote about District Judge Joseph F. Chase’s excruciating decision in the LaDue case, some readers wondered how his treatment in the courts compared with the case against the Somali men. Some readers wondered if the issue was literally black and white.

“It’s a really interesting question,” said Brad Colbert, resident adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline’s Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners (LAMP) Clinic. “The comparison from afar has the appearance of somewhat similar offenses and completely different responses by the justice system.”

“Is there a difference between somebody who is a mass murderer [acting alone], and somebody who acts because they believe so strongly in an ideology?” Colbert asked. “Maybe the two cases are similar in that both [defendants] are looking at [killers] as heroes.”

While few people are empathetic to anyone seeking to commit murder, “I think there is a difference of empathy,” said Colbert. “I think it’s easier to be empathetic to a kid in [Waseca] than people who are going to fight a war far away.”

Yet, that doesn’t come close to explaining the possible differences in potential outcomes between the cases, experts agree.

Barry Feld is a professor of law at the University of Minnesota who has been writing about discrepancies in justice between whites and people of color. Yet, these cases “are apples and oranges,” Feld said.

“The fact that LaDue is a juvenile is not insignificant,” even though the Somali defendants are only slightly older. “Once you cross over the theoretical line of 18, you are presumed to be a responsible adult.”

Though LaDue’s case conceivably could have been tried in federal court, such trials are rare. “The Somali case is clearly a federal case,” said Feld.

Perry Moriearty is an associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota law school who teaches about race and law.

“It’s easy to look at something simplistically and see a discrepancy,” Moriearty said of the two cases. “But if you drill down, it’s much more complicated.”

Moriearty cited data from the Sentencing Project, a think tank on judicial discrepancies. “Yes, there is evidence that young men of color offend more often, but offense rates can’t, in and of themselves, explain all of the disparities,” she said in an e-mail. “Something else is going on as well. Like everything, evidence of differential treatment is nuanced.”

They also point out that LaDue’s actions, while deliberate, hadn’t yet risen to serious crimes; the Somali defendants allegedly had already conspired, through communications and attempts to leave the country, to felonies.

Experts I contacted, including lawyers and a judge not connected to these cases, agree that a vast gray area of law is evolving because of the relatively new phenomena of domestic mass shooters and young men being lured to terrorism abroad.

“It raises questions about trying to predict what a person might do if they hadn’t been caught, and how you deal with them,” said Colbert.

Colbert believes the Waseca judge who settled on the plea agreement to sentence LaDue to a mental health facility and probation is in an elected position, and thus “did this unbelievable act of courage,” while the prosecutor in the case was frustrated by the decision.

In federal court, both U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger and Judge Michael Davis are known for thoughtfulness, compassion — and toughness. They also believe in restorative justice, experts said, so like the Waseca judge, they face incomprehensible choices when dealing with the young Somali men.

That means about the best any of them can expect is that their decisions are sound enough that in 10 years or so no one will remember their names.

 

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702