Newburgh Four bases appeal on entrapment


Three judges in a federal Manhattan appeals court are currently considering whether the four men convicted of plotting to blow up the Riverdale Jewish Center and Riverdale Temple were entrapped by the government.

At an appeal hearing on Nov. 5, attorneys for the Newburgh Four — convicted in October 2010 and later sentenced to 25 years in prison — argued that the government engaged in misconduct when Federal Bureau of Investigation informant Shahed Hussain enticed the men with money and provided supplies for the plot. Lawyers argue the FBI informant, not the Newburgh Four, came up with the idea of attacking the synagogues and so the guilty verdicts should be overturned. 

James Cromitie, Laguerre Payen, Onta Williams and David Williams were arrested May 20, 2009 in Riverdale, after trying to plant explosives outside the two synagogues. 

After an eight-week trial and eight days of deliberations, all four men were convicted on Oct. 18, 2010 of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the U.S.; three counts of attempting to use weapons of mass destruction within the U.S.; conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles; attempting to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles and conspiracy to kill officers and employees of the U.S.

In addition to trying to blow up the Riverdale synagogues, they were also found guilty of planning to shoot missiles at military planes located at Stewart Air National Guard Base near Newburgh, N.Y.

As the trial progressed, what was first perceived as a major victory for law enforcement became something of an embarrassment. Judge Colleen McMahon said the accused would have been unlikely to pursue terrorism without prodding from federal agents and an informant looking to manufacture an arrest.

While Judge McMahon said during the trial that she was not proud of how the government handled the case, she sentenced each man to 25 years in prison, the mandatory minimum sentence for the conviction.

“Only the government could have made a ‘terrorist’ out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope,” she said at the sentencing.

But the government argued that its involvement was spurred by a meeting between Mr. Hussain and James Cromitie in Newburgh, N.Y. in which Mr. Cromitie said he wanted to do “something to America.”

In October 2010, U.S. Attorney David Raskin tried to bring the jurors’ attention away from the informant and back on the four men who traveled to Riverdale with what they believed to be bombs.

“They actually planted bombs on the street of this city. Bombs they believed would take out buildings. Bombs they believed would kill people,” Mr. Raskin told the jury.

At the appeal, the three judges had tough questions for both sides, according to news reports.

The judges will have to decide whether the government acted appropriately.

“It would be one thing if the defendant had conceived the crime and then, as obstacles arose, the government removed them,” Judge Reena Raggi said, according to The New York Times. “The government comes up with the idea, picks the targets, provides all the means, removes the obstacles.” 

Clinton W. Calhoun III, who represents James Cromitie, argues that there would have been no plot without the government.

“There was no evidence at all that any of these men were predisposed before they came into contact with the government,” said Mr. Calhoun in an interview.

But Judge Jon O. Newman said Mr. Cromitie’s taped conversations that came to light during the trial are “cause for concern.”

“He’s quoted as saying at the first meeting he wanted to do something to America,” Judge Newman said, according to news reports .

There is no timetable for when the three-judge panel will make its decision. 

“I think the appellate court had some very sharp and difficult questions for both sides. I really wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how its going to all come out,” Mr. Calhoun said on Monday.