Newburgh 4 Terror Case: Judge Sentences Three to 25 Years in Prison, U.S. Constitution Shivers [Updated]
In what has to be one of the least fair decisions in history, a federal judge has sentenced three of the four men convicted of plotting to blow up synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down a military jet to 25 years in prison.
In a case absolutely choking with troubling questions about the behavior of the FBI and a paid informant, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon still levied the tough sentence on three of the so-called Newburgh 4: James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams. The fourth defendant, Laguerre Payen, is yet to be sentenced. Update: McMahon hands were tied because of mandatory minimum laws. She actually gave them the minimum sentence allowed by law for their conviction. She said her decision would have been overturned if she gave them less than 25 years. She also refused, as the government wanted, to give them life in prison.
"I suspect that real terrorists would not have bothered themselves with a person who was so utterly inept," McMahon said in published reports. "Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope."
McMahon herself had repeatedly raised questions from the bench about the conduct and credibility of government informant Shahed Hussain, who aggressively recruited Cromitie and plied the quartet with gifts and promised to pay them a lot of money if they went along with the alleged plot. Defense attorneys charged that Hussain, who posed as a wealthy Pakistani businessman with ties to a terror group, and the FBI basically manipulated the men into participating in the plot.
"The government manufactured the criminal and manufactured the crime," a defense attorney said about the case earlier this year.
David Williams told the Voice in an exclusive interview earlier this year that he and Cromitie were simply trying to scam Hussain, who they thought was rich, out of as much money as possible without actually going through with the plot, and they had no interest in actually hurting anyone.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement today, "James Cromitie, David Williams, and Onta Williams voluntarily agreed to target synagogues and military planes using what they thought were real bombs and missiles."
The key word is "agreed." In other words, Bharara is basically admitting that the men went along with the plot, rather than hatching it themselves.
This raises a disturbing question: is it proper for the government to fish for potential terrorists by going around floating phony plots to see who bites? Just asking.
Another key word is "thought." See Orwell, George, 1984.
All four defendants were former convicts stricken with poverty. One, Payen, was described as almost mentally retarded. None of them would have had the brains or the means to come up with such a plot, unless Hussain was there, pushing them along, and the government was there providing the ideas, the money, the equipment, the transportation and the weapons--all of which were of course fake.
Alicia McWilliams, David Williams' aunt, offered the following essay on her thoughts on the case. It was written prior to the sentencing.
Standing Vigil for My Nephew, My Values, Our Communities By Alicia McWilliams
For two months last fall, I attended every day of my nephew David William's trial. On countless days, I stood vigil outside of the Manhattan courthouse, lonely even with friends and supporters standing by my side. This week, I will go to the courthouse one last time, when David is sentenced. In its case against the so-called Newburgh Four, the government is asking that my nephew serve life in prison.
David and I have been through a lot together. Coming from the inner city, we know hardship well. Drugs, poverty, crime, and disease are a constant presence in our lives. The government has generally been indifferent to the problems in our communities. David lived in Newburgh, one of the poorest cities in the state, where education and infrastructure have crumbled in the last decade. There are few initiatives that offer counseling or training to at-risk youths. But ultimately, David and I never blamed anyone for our problems, and we knew that solutions would have to come from ourselves.
I have been active in my community, helping people get off drugs. I'm proud to say I've been clean since 1992 and have always worked to support others in my community, those living with HIV, ex-offenders, and more. David sold drugs to make money, and went to prison for it. He got out in 2007. David wanted to keep his younger brother Lord from getting into the same kind of trouble he had. Lord has liver cancer and almost died several times in the months before David was arrested, and David wanted to find money to pay for a transplant. David was also trying to overcome his dyslexia, get his GED, and raise his daughter. In those days, even if the government didn't help us very much it wasn't exactly out to get us either.
Until 2008, that is. That's when the government sent a paid, untrained informant to infiltrate the local mosque in Newburgh, to collect information on the community there. As we learned later, he became an informant to work off charges he faced for fraud.
Posing as a rich Pakistani businessman, the informant Shahed Hussain tried to engage attendees in conversations about jihad and American foreign policy. The community didn't like him much, so eventually he began hanging out in the parking lot. Eventually, he met James Cromitie, a big-talking Newburgh resident with a history of small-time crime. At first Hussain worked on Cromitie with free meals and stories about Americans abusing Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He tried to cajole him into agreeing to carry out some sort of violent crime. When Cromitie was ambivalent, Hussain offered money, cars, a barber shop and more. It wasn't enough though and at one point Cromitie cut ties with Hussain for months. After Cromitie was fired from Wal-Mart, he called Hussain to take "the job." They still needed lookouts, which the government informant insisted be Muslims.
That's when David and the other two defendants, Laguerre Payen and Onta Williams, entered the picture. They were all Muslim. They were all also broke, and promised tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cromitie assured them that nobody would get hurt.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the government had never sent Hussain to Newburgh. Maybe David would have gotten into some kind of trouble again, or maybe he would have completed his GED and straightened out. Either way, he or the other men would have meant nothing to the government and the public. And David surely never would have become a lookout in a plot to bomb a synagogue in the Bronx.
But the government did interfere with us. The costs for our family have been tremendous. Our lives have been torn apart. But even more is at stake. The government spent millions of taxpayer dollars on the informant's salary, perks, luxury cars, surveillance equipment, fake weaponry, helicopters, and the dramatic trial. Lawyers, rights groups, and the media have poured resources into covering the case. And the benefits? I may be biased, but I haven't met many people who can say with a straight face that our nation is safer from terrorism as a result of all this.
I also sometimes wonder, what good might those resources have done if they'd been invested in our communities instead? Perhaps job-training for parolees, or education for young Newburgh residents, or programs for getting guns of the street. Maybe re-entry programs for parolees with mental health problems, like Laguerre, who is schizophrenic. Of course, many might consider spending money on these communities to be a preposterous waste of money, these days especially. I don't agree, but I can at least understand.
What I can't understand is spending millions of dollars to set David and the others up, and then to put them in prison for life, which will also cost millions of dollars. Just so the government can have another notch on its belt in the "war on terror"? Or maybe I can understand. The informant needed to keep getting paid, and the government needed a few victories.
But at what cost?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.