By Basil Katz
NEW YORK, Nov 5 (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Monday
questioned whether the federal government had overstepped its
bounds in a sting operation against four men who were convicted
of placing what they thought were bombs at New York synagogues.
The four, arrested in an FBI sting operation in May 2009,
were sentenced in June 2011 to mandatory minimum terms of 25
years in prison. A Manhattan federal court jury found them
guilty after a two-month trial in 2010.
The case against the "Newburgh Four," named after their
hometown of Newburgh, north of New York City, was announced by
U.S. authorities with much fanfare.
It has since become a poster case for critics of government
sting operations who say the tactics can lead to the illegal
entrapment of defendants. The U.S. Justice Department counters
that such investigations have strict guidelines and that they
are an essential tactic to combat terrorism.
Defense lawyers have asked the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals in New York to throw out the convictions of the four
defendants. At Monday's two-hour hearing, a three-judge panel
peppered defense attorneys and the government with questions.
Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs asked prosecutor Adam Hickey if he
knew of another case where the government's role in "creating,
animating the offense was so all encompassing?"
"What distinguishes this case is not so much the
government's involvement, it's the gravity of the conduct,"
Lawyers for the four defendants argued that their clients
were entrapped and their due process rights were violated.
"The case was not so much about terrorism but about the
power of the government to use a corrupt informant to entrap
U.S. citizens in a crime they never would have or could have
committed," said Clinton Calhoun, who represents James Cromitie,
46, the main defendant in the case.
The defense lawyers said their clients were badgered into
committing to the bogus plot by a confidential informant, Shahed
Hussain, who posed as an Islamist militant.
"James Cromitie indicated that he was trying to be a good
Muslim ... and it is Hussain who is forcing him to action,"
Calhoun told the judges.
Hussain, a Pakistani motel owner, had participated in other
FBI investigations in the past. Cromitie was a low-level drug
offender who had a night-time job restocking shelves at a
Walmart, according to court documents.
Defense lawyers said Hussain manipulated Cromitie's
affection for him and encouraged Cromitie to carry out a
conspiracy to bomb synagogues and to shoot down military planes
at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York, with
Stinger surface-to-air missiles.
Judge Reena Raggi appeared unconvinced that Cromitie's due
process rights had been violated, saying poor and uneducated
people were sometimes recruited by Islamist militants to commit
violent acts thanks to misleading religious ideas and promises
"I'm not sure this rises to the level of outrageous
government misconduct," she said.
The other defendants are David Williams, 31, Onta Williams,
36, and Laguerre Payen, 31.
The appeals court said it would issue a decision at a later
The case is US v. James Cromitie et al., U.S. Court of
Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, No. 11-2763.
For the government: Adam Hickey, Assistant U.S. Attorney.
For James Cromitie: Clinton Calhoun of Calhoun & Lawrence.
For Onta Williams: David Lewis, Federal Defenders of New
For David Williams: Theodore Green of Green & Willstatter.
For Laguerre Payen: Samuel Braverman of The Law Office of
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