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Judge orders release of 3 of ‘Newburgh Four,’ assails FBI’s role in post-9/11 terror sting

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By MICHAEL R. SISAK and JENNIFER PELTZ (Associated Press)

NEW YORK (AP) — Three men ensnarled in an infamous 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 in a scheme more than a decade ago 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 she said “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 the men 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.

Samuel Braverman, who represented Payen at trial, called the ruling “incredibly brave and just.”

“What we need to take from all of this is: We have been entrapped by a pathology of criminalization and anger and blaming, and we need to do better as a society,” Braverman said.

Messages seeking comment were sent to Payen’s most recent attorney and to lawyers for Onta Williams and David Williams, who are not related.

A fourth man, James Cromitie, has not sought early release and is expected to complete his prison sentence in 2030.

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.

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 came under renewed scrutiny when a stretch limo crashed in rural Schoharie, New York, killing 20 people. Hussain owned the limo company.

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, Hussain’s son, Nauman — the company’s operator — 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.

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