David Williams, Onta Williams, Laguerre Payen, who is Haitian, and James Cromitie, four Black Muslim men known as the “Newburgh Four,” have spent over 14 years in prison for a fake, government-orchestrated plot they were led to be involved in by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
David Williams, Onta Williams, who are not related, and Laguerre Payen are now being released. In a July 27 decision, and an order on the three defendants’ motions for compassionate release from prison, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon accused the United States government of being the “real lead conspirator.”
In October 2010, the four men were convicted by the same judge of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, conspiracy to kill officers and employees of the United States, three counts of attempted use of weapons of mass destruction and one count of attempted acquisition and use of anti-aircraft missiles.
However, the convictions were due to an FBI-orchestrated conspiracy to bomb synagogues in the Bronx and to fire stinger missiles at military planes at New York Stewart International Airport near Newburgh, New York, on May 20, 2009. The men were sentenced in 2011 to a mandatory minimum term of 25 years in prison. It was the “planned attack” on the airport that subjected the men to the mandatory minimum of 25 years.
“… the government—in its understandable zeal to identify and capture individuals who would to do harm to the United States—used an unscrupulous operative to inveigle four impoverished men (principally by promising them money) into agreeing to commit serious terrorism offenses that they never could have dreamed up on their own, and then manipulated the facts of the offense so that the men had to be sentenced to at least 25 years in prison,” Judge McMahon wrote.
The defendants’ argued that their convictions were the “consequence of an abusive, selective and racist prosecution.” Judge McMahon granted them compassionate release on the basis that “their Government-engineered mandatory minimum sentence imposed on them, while legal, was overly harsh and unjust.” Other reasons for their release are due to the effects of confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic, rehabilitation over the 14 years they have been incarcerated and various health-related concerns, including in Mr. Payen’s case, severe mental illness.
The government urged the court to deny the compassionate release motions, but Judge McMahon wrote in her scathing, 28-page decision, “Defendants’ arguments are persuasive; the Governments’ are not.”
The defendants’ sentences were reduced to time served plus 90 days, in order to finalize release plans, including supportive housing for Mr. Payen.
Nation of Islam Student Minister Demetric Muhammad, an author and researcher based in Memphis, Tennessee, said to The Final Call that the story of the Newburgh Four shines a light on the dark history of America’s federal law enforcement agencies—the FBI, CIA and Homeland Security.
“Frequently we have been targeted and we have been the objects of the plans and the wicked efforts of these various agencies like the FBI and the CIA. We have been targets for destruction,” he said of Black leaders and organizations who have been historical targets of federal law enforcement. “We are those that are greatly vindicated by this recent case.”
The four men who were convicted are far from the terrorists the government attempted to make them out to be. Judge McMahon described them as “hapless, easily manipulated and penurious (extremely poor) petty criminals.”
James Cromitie was targeted in 2007 by one of the FBI’s confidential informants, Shahed Hussain, who has been described as an “unsavory” character with a laundry list of crimes committed. Mr. Hussain also operated as an FBI informant in several other entrapment cases. His task was to infiltrate upstate mosques with majority Black Muslim populations and identify “potential terrorists,” according to Judge McMahon.
Mr. Cromitie was a “small time grifter and petty drug dealer with no history of violence.” He was enticed by Mr. Hussain’s promises of “heavenly and earthly” rewards, including $250,000 if he committed to and agreed to find others to participate in a “jihadist mission.”
By early 2008, Mr. Cromitie was “unemployed and broke.” It is only then that he reached back out to Mr. Hussain and agreed to the plan. He found and recruited the other three, David Williams, Onta Williams and Mr. Payen, who were also down on their luck, to serve as lookouts. Along with his economic state, Mr. Payen was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and had just been released from a psychiatric facility less than six months prior to the scheme.
“Nothing about the crimes of conviction was defendants’ own doing. The FBI invented the conspiracy; identified the targets; manufactured the ordnance; federalized what would otherwise have been a state crime (the Bronx ‘bomb’ plot) by driving three of the four men (Onta Williams was not available) into Connecticut to view the ‘bombs’ and ‘stinger missile launchers’ that would be used in the operation; and picked the day for the ‘mission,’” Judge McMahon wrote.
Mr. Hussain drove the men to the location of the synagogues, because they had no way to drive themselves, armed the bombs, because Mr. Comitrie could not figure out how to do it despite being “trained,” and told Mr. Comitrie how to place the device. The fake, FBI-built bombs were placed outside of two synagogues, and the four men were arrested soon after their placement.
“We immediately knew that this was a fake case, a phony case that the government had put up, and we’ve been fighting it ever since,” Stephen Downs, chairman of the board of the Coalition for Civil Freedoms and David Williams’ attorney, said to The Final Call.
The entrapment defense
Early arguments of entrapment were raised in the Newburgh Four case, but in her recent decision, Judge McMahon admits that the court “reluctantly concluded” that there is no such thing as “sentencing entrapment.”
“So the sentence, while unjust, was legal,” she wrote.
Shirin Sinnar, a professor at Stanford Law School and author of, “Hate Crimes, Terrorism, and the Framing of White Supremacist Violence,” an article published in California Law Review, called what happened to the Newburgh Four a “travesty of justice.”
“Government entrapment should not be legal, but it is actually very, very difficult to win by arguing entrapment in a criminal case. And that, to me, is a problem with the law. The law makes it very difficult to succeed because defendants have to show that they were not predisposed to committing violence, and in practice, that’s a really hard showing to make,” she told The Final Call.
She described that often, a jury will reject the entrapment claim due to a person’s words, regardless of if they “would have had any intent to do anything without the government setting them up.”
She and Atty. Downs both see the impact of Judge McMahon’s decision as setting a precedent for granting compassionate release in similar cases.
“There’s been a long principle that the government should not create crime in order to solve it. There’s something inherently immoral about that. And so, they’ve had an entrapment defense, and that should be satisfied simply by showing that the person had no interest in crime before the government came to them and induced them or tried to get them to commit the crime,”
Atty. Downs said. “The problem here is that slowly the courts have whittled away and whittled away at this doctrine, until at the present time, it’s virtually meaningless. And the way they’ve done it is by saying, well, how do we know whether they were predisposed to commit a crime?”
The Coalition for Civil Freedoms has designed a bill, the “Entrapment and Governmental Overreach Relief Act,” to close the loopholes regarding entrapment defense and to create a statutory entrapment defense, which would require the government to show that the target had already taken substantial steps to commit a crime before it can entrap the person.
The Coalition for Civil Freedoms, along with other organizations, published a study titled, “The Terror Trap: The Impact of the War on Terror on Muslim Communities Since 9/11,” in 2021. The report starts by tracking the racial history of policing that led to the government-orchestrated “war on terror,” including the racializing of crime during and after the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the war on Black people in America through the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
The concerns of the U.S. government “were mostly directed at domestic political disorder from militant labor organizing and Black activism. Essentially, the FBI is the United States’ version of a secret police force since, from its very inception, it used tactics of political warfare and secret intelligence to undermine domestic political movements,” the report states.
Enter FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who “saw himself as a crusader against all forms of subversion, particularly Black liberation.” Under his direction, Black leaders and movements, along with other individuals and organizations, were under heavy surveillance and were infiltrated by government agents and informants. Many Black activists were killed; others were jailed for life and still languish away in prison today.
Yet, the report insinuates: “While the COINTELPRO program officially ended, its practices and tactics never truly went away. One could argue that the post-9/11 domestic surveillance powers are descendants of COINTELPRO.”
“COINTELPRO never went away, even though it was exposed to the American people in the early 1970s for the first time during the Church Committee hearings, but it never went away. It couldn’t go away, because of the attitude of animosity toward Black people, toward Native people, toward student youth groups, who had the nerve and the courage to challenge the government in her treatment of the poor, treatment of Black, treatment of immigrants,” Student Minister Muhammad said. “The federal government has always had a hostile attitude toward those among the American people who would seek to hold it accountable.”
The Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam were targets of COINTELPRO. The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan described the satanic forces within the U.S. government as being “universal snoopers,” and that informants and agents are being sent into organizations to cause disruption.
“This is the same FBI that is snooping around in mosques; listening to the conversation of Muslims who may not like Jews, who may be angry with Israel, and want to harm Jews because of something that the Israeli government has done. So the FBI approaches them, and sets up a plot with them—and then exposes the plot.
Too often coverage of the African continent is done by people who are not on the African ‘entrapment’ to show that ‘Muslims are planning evil against America. These are the enemies that are among us all,’” the Minister explained in part 26 of his 58-week lecture series, “The Time and What Must Be Done,” titled, “Satan, Surveillance and the U.S. Government.”
Atty. Downs explained how after 9/11, the government began dismantling a “second wave” of terrorism that never came.
“There was no second wave, and they very quickly realized it, that there just was no infrastructure, there was no plan going on out there to do anything. And they could’ve backed off at that point, but they didn’t,” he said. “They needed to create a whole bunch of fake terrorists to fill the gap of what they promised the American public. They said there’s all these terrorists out there. And the question is, where are they? How come you haven’t found them?”
He described the Newburgh Four as one of the first and most obvious cases of the government’s schemes.
“The only thing that the government needed was for these people to talk like jihadists so that they could record that and play that back for the jury later,” he said. “They held the money over them until they would talk the talk. And then whenever anybody criticized what the government was doing, they would say here, we’ll play this back and you can see all these horrible things that they’re saying, all this hate speech, without acknowledging that this hate speech all came because the government was basically paying them to say it. They were like actors on a lot for a movie that was being made about terrorism, and they were given their lines and they were paid to do this.”
Atty. Downs said he and the Coalition of Civil Freedoms are representing about 250 people in total who were caught up in similar government schemes and operations to create fake terrorists. An unpublished database shared with The Final Call by Lynne Jackson of Project SALAM tracks 1,301 people who became victims of the government’s “preemptive prosecution.”
“Overall, 94.2% of all the terrorism-related convictions on the DOJ list have been either preemptive prosecution cases or cases that involved elements of preemptive prosecution,” reads a 2014 analysis of the database by Project SALAM and the Coalition of Civil Freedoms. The study defined “preemptive prosecution” as “a law enforcement strategy, adopted after 9/11, to target and prosecute individuals or organizations whose beliefs, ideology, or religious affiliations raise security concerns for the government.”
The Newburgh Four were victims of such prosecution. Atty. Downs identified the pattern of the U.S. government as first having the presence of a national crisis and second, issuing classified reports.
“J. Edgar Hoover proclaims a national crisis and all of a sudden, because of some classified reports, they go out there and they do COINTELPRO. Then we have a national crisis, 9/11. Somewhere there’s a secret report, and it gets disseminated among the various people saying that there’s a second wave coming, and it justifies whatever the executive wants to do,” he said.
Student Minister Muhammad described the “war on terror” as a public relations campaign to hide the government’s long-term strategy, which was the “secret plot for regime change throughout the Muslim world, so that leaders who were more amenable and agreeable to America’s foreign policy, America’s foreign trade policies with regard to oil and America’s foreign policy relative to Israel, would be in power.”
“She wanted to depose all of those leaders, and all of those regimes stood strong against her ease of access to Middle Eastern oil. And she wanted to depose all of those leaders who were critical of the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians. And so she couldn’t just come out right and say these things. She had to manufacture a public relations campaign to get the consent of the American people to do this so-called ‘war on terror,’” Student Minister Muhammad said.
He noted that the Newburgh Four case goes one step further in bringing in the claim of “anti-semitism.”
“Right now, President Biden has agreed to develop a national strategy to combat anti-semitism as a reaction to the alleged rise in anti-Semitic attacks. Well, this case, it has now been proven that these brothers who were arrested for wanting to blow up a synagogue, they never really wanted to blow up a synagogue at all. They were set up; they were entrapped,” he said. “This raises the question, how many other of the incidents of antisemitic crimes are legitimate crimes, or are they also a part of the setup of poor, uneducated men or women whom the government works to form into zealots or patsies?”
He summed up the lies, falsifications and entrapment cases as the U.S. government’s plan to first create an atmosphere where those who are targets—Black people, Muslims and others—are negatively viewed.
“We see that one of the main reasons why Muslims and Black people are the victims of character assassination is because it always is the justification for any negative, anti-Black, genocidal plot and strategy that the government wants to execute to harm our people,” he concluded. Final Call staff contributed to this report.