NY judge asked to toss temple plot conviction

Last Updated: Sun, Mar 27, 2011 22:10 hrs

Lawyers for four men in a terror plot to blow up New York City synagogues and shoot down military planes sought to convince a judge Thursday that their convictions — and even the case itself — should be thrown out because they were entrapped by a paid FBI informant posing as an Islamic extremist.

Prosecutors argued the defendants were ready and willing to attack Americans.

The daylong arguments in a Manhattan federal court centered on the government's attempts to thwart homegrown terrorism by monitoring mosques and other locations for potential militants and, if necessary, using elaborate sting operations to neutralize them before they can do any harm.

In one of several pointed exchanges, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon noted that the scheme detailed at trial was phony from the outset.

"The plot was created before our very eyes in this courtroom," she said.

Responded Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin: "The law allows that to happen."

A jury found the men — alleged mastermind James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen — guilty last year of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other charges.

The defendants' sentencing has been put off until the judge rules on the post-verdict defense motions. She gave no indication Thursday of when she would rule.

The trial featured 13 days of testimony by undercover informant Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant that the FBI assigned in 2008 to infiltrate a mosque in Newburgh, about an hour north of New York. After meeting Cromitie at the mosque, he told him he was a representative of a Pakistani terror organization that was eager to finance a holy war on U.S. soil.

Prosecutors alleged that in meetings with Hussain, Cromitie hatched the scheme to blow up the synagogues in the Bronx with remote-controlled bombs and shoot down cargo planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh with heat-seeking missiles. They say he also recruited the other men to be lookouts with promises of money. Onta and David Williams are not related.

Agents arrested the men in 2009 after they planted the devices — fakes supplied by the FBI — in the Riverdale section of the Bronx while under heavy surveillance.

In one of several videos played at trial, the men were seen inspecting a shoulder missile launcher in a bugged warehouse in Connecticut two weeks before the planned attack. At the end of the tape, Cromitie, two of his cohorts and the informant bow their heads in prayer.

Jurors also heard tapes of Cromitie ranting against Jews and U.S. military aggression in the Middle East

"I'm ready to do this damn thing," Cromitie said on one tape. "Anything for the cause."

The defense renewed arguments that the FBI overreached by targeting desperate, down-and-out dupes who were only in it for the petty cash and meals the informant gave them. Cromitie wavered for eight months — and even disappeared for six weeks — before finally agreeing to go forward with the plan, said defense attorney Vincent Briccetti.

"He talked the talk, but when it came to walking the walk, he didn't — until he was entrapped," he said.

Bricetti also accused authorities of misconduct by losing control of the informant — "an out-and-out total liar" — and allowing him to incite Cromitie to kill Jews.

"The government created the criminal and then they manufactured the crime," he said.

Raskin countered that the evidence showed Cromitie was the instigator, approaching the informant at the outset and later confiding unprompted that being a terrorist would fulfill a childhood ambition.

"Nobody was pushing them," he said of the defendants. "They did it because they wanted to do it."