Judge orders release of 3 of 'Newburgh Four' and assails FBI's role in a post-9/11 terror sting

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NEW YORK (AP) — Three men convicted in a post-9/11 terrorism sting have been ordered freed from prison by a judge who deemed their lengthy sentences “unduly harsh and unjust” and decried the FBI's role in radicalizing them in a plot to blow up New York synagogues and shoot down National Guard planes.

Onta Williams, David Williams and Laguerre Payen — three of the men known as the “Newburgh Four" — were “hapless, easily manipulated and penurious petty criminals" caught up more than a decade ago in a scheme driven by overzealous FBI agents and a dodgy informant, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon said in her ruling Thursday.

“The real lead conspirator was the United States,” McMahon wrote in granting the men's request for compassionate release, effective in three months.

She said that it was “heinous” of the men to agree to participate in what she called the government's "made for TV movie.” But, the judge added, "the sentence was the product of a fictitious plot to do things that these men had never remotely contemplated, and that were never going to happen.”

She excoriated the government for sending “a villain” of an informant "to troll among the poorest and weakest of men for ‘terrorists’ who might prove susceptible to an offer of much-needed cash in exchange for committing a faux crime.”

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on the judge’s decision. A message seeking comment was sent to the FBI.

Citing concerns for the men's health and her own qualms about the case, McMahon cut the 25-year mandatory minimum sentences she imposed on them in 2011 to time served plus 90 days. She said that would allow time for probation officials to prepare and for Payen's lawyer to line up supportive housing for the man, who has a severe mental illness.

“We are tremendously pleased that our clients are on their way home — even if it’s fourteen years too late,” said Amith R. Gupta, part of a group of lawyers representing Payen and the Willamses, who are not related. Gupta in his statement described the three as destitute men “entrapped for their race, religion, and working-class backgrounds by a government looking to spread fear of Muslims and justify bloated budgets.”

Kathy Manley, who represented Payen, said the prosecution “should never have happened, but now at least the men will soon be out of prison.” Samuel Braverman, who represented Payen at trial, called the ruling “incredibly brave and just.”

The fourth man, James Cromitie, wasn't part of the compassionate release request and is expected to complete his prison sentence in 2030.

Cromitie's attorney, Kerry Lawrence, plans to speak with him about pursuing similar action on his behalf.

“I’m confident he would be entitled to relief for the same reasons articulated by Judge McMahon for the other defendants," Lawrence said.

Payen, Cromitie and the Williamses were arrested in 2009, during a period of heightened public and law enforcement concern about the threat of terror strikes hatched within the U.S. by supporters of foreign extremists.

Officials portrayed Cromitie as the ringleader of a “chilling plot” among “extremely violent men” loyal to a Pakistani terrorist group — though the government later decided not to present any evidence about foreign terrorist organizations at trial. A court complaint described him as a man seething with anti-American and antisemitic sentiment and eager to translate those feelings into bloody action.

Prosecutors said the defendants had spent months scouting targets and securing what they thought were explosives and a surface-to-air missile, aiming to shoot down planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York, and blow up synagogues in Riverdale, a heavily Jewish part of the Bronx. They were arrested there after allegedly planting bombs that were, in fact, packed with inert explosives supplied by the FBI.

From the start, relatives said the four were men who were down on their luck after doing prison time.

The men’s lawyers soon raised questions about entrapment — a legal defense that argues that people were enticed into illegal conduct they wouldn’t have otherwise committed.

The defense lawyers said federal informant Shaheed Hussain tried to stir up the men with rhetoric and went on to choose the targets, offer hefty payment, buy the defendants groceries, and provide the fake bombs and missile. The defense portrayed Hussain as a self-serving manipulator who was trying to please the government after his own, unrelated fraud conviction.

Jurors deliberated for eight days before convicting the men in 2010. Three years later, they lost an appeal.

A possible phone number for Hussain rang unanswered Thursday night.

Hussain also worked with the FBI on other stings, including one that targeted an Albany pizza shop owner and an imam — and involved a loan using money from a fictitious missile sale. Both men, who said they were tricked, were convicted of money laundering and conspiring to aid a terrorist group.

A few years later, Hussain was in the public eye again when a stretch limo crashed in rural Schoharie, New York, killing 20 people. Hussain owned the limo company, operated by his son Nauman Hussain.

After it emerged that the limo had failed a safety inspection a month before the crash and that the slain driver didn’t have a commercial license, Nauman Hussain was charged with criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter. His lawyer blamed a repair shop for the vehicle’s problems and said his client was being treated like a scapegoat.

Nauman Hussain was convicted this May and is serving five to 15 years in prison.