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Conviction, Life Sentences Upheld in JFK, Queens Terror Plot

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By William Peacock, Esq. on June 07, 2013 3:55 PM

Had their plan succeded, Russell "Mohammed" Defreitas and Abdul Kadir would have leveled the John F. Kennedy International Airport and much of the Borough of Queens by attaching explosives to the airport's fuel tanks. In order to further the plot, the duo made attempts to connect with al Qaeda, al Jamaat Al-Muslimeen ("JAM"), a militant Islamic group located in Trinidad, and other contacts in Iran.

Fortunately, an FBI informant was working within the group. The four principals of the group were arrested in 2007. Defreitas and Kadir were, after a jury trial, convicted in 2010.

They now appeal a number of issues related to their trial, including the decision to use an anonymous jury, several evidentiary rulings, and of course, their life sentences.

Anonymous Jury

The court granted an anonymous jury trial on three grounds: (1) the serious and violent nature of the allegations, (2) the intense international media coverage, and (3) Defreitas' threats against other members of the judicial system, including witnesses and his attorney.

A court must take reasonable precautions to protect a defendant's fundamental rights when empanelling an anonymous jury. Here, the judge used an extensive juror questionnaire, had a hearing to allow parties to strike jurors for cause, allotted two extra weeks for juror questioning, and allowed the parties a full opportunity to exercise peremptory challenges.

Evidentiary Rulings

Defreitas and Kadir appealed multiple evidentiary rulings, including the allowance of expert testimony on al Qaeda and Hezbollah (the court called this testimony "dry and academic, devoid of vivid imagery that might excite the jury ..."), the admission of photographs of Kadir posing with multiple machine guns (hilariously, Kadir's counsel only objected to the timing of the admission, as he wanted to use them in his case), the partial (instead of full) de-classification of a government memo related to the case, and the exclusion of tape recordings of Kadir.

Each issue was reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard, which as we all know, is a pretty high burden to meet. The Second Circuit's evaluation of each issue was cursory at best, due to deference to the lower court's rulings. The most interesting point was that the classified memo might have required full declassification if the defendants had argued entrapment as a defense.

Sentencing

A life sentence for a terror plot that would've killed an unimaginable number of innocent people. Totally unreasonable, right?

Yeah. Not so much.

The base offense level for both Defreitas and Kadir was 33. Each received twelve-level enhancements for terrorism, plus a number of other enhancements. The maximum level, per the U.S.S.G. guidelines, which recommends a life sentence, is 43. Each cleared that mark by far.

Furthermore, none of the telltale signs of procedural error occurred here, and his only Kadir's only argument for unreasonableness was that he was previously offered a more favorable plea bargain before the offer was pulled. Prior plea offers are not a factor that must be considered by the court.

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