First entrapped, then railroaded

May 17, 2011

"Evidence-wise, we had them beat," David Williams told the Village Voice. "We got convicted on feelings. They [the prosecutors] started talking about 9/11...and we got convicted on that. Once you put 'terrorist' in front of anything, it's like being charged with rape or child molestation. Once a jury hears that you're accused of a certain type of crime, you're already guilty."

Two years ago this month, four African American men, all former prisoners, were arrested on terrorism charges: plotting to bomb two Riverdale synagogues and shoot down military airplanes with missiles. The men, who lived in poverty-stricken Newburgh, N.Y., had neither the means, abilities nor motives to carry out such acts before they met FBI agent provocateur Shahed Hussain.

Long before Hussain met James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen, the FBI had concocted the plot's scenario. Hussain's job was to find people willing to go through with this "terrorist" plan, and lure them into executing it.

After months of fruitless efforts "to talk jihad" at the local mosque, as he put it, Hussain found his target. James Cromitie, unemployed and desperate, was offered $250,000, a vacation to Puerto Rico and his own barbershop if he agreed to commit to the plot. Hussain then spent months trying to get Cromitie to make a move, to no avail.

Roughly a month before their arrest, Cromitie introduced Hussain to David Williams. Payen (who suffers from schizophrenia and has been in and out of mental institutions his whole life) and Onta Williams came in to the picture a mere three weeks prior to May 20. None of the men knew each other very well.

David Williams agreed to get on board with the plot only because Cromitie promised him that no one would get hurt, and that he had no intention of going through with the plan--he only wanted the money. Hussain promised David he could pay for a very expensive and badly needed surgery for David's brother, who suffers from liver disease.

Anyone who considers these facts would conclude that the Newburgh 4 were victims of entrapment. Even the judge at the trial of the four, Colleen McMahon, had said as early as May 2010, at a pre-trial hearing, "I have referred to the case for a number of months in the privacy of my chambers as the 'un-terrorism case,'" according to a local newspaper.

But because of the atmosphere of scaremongering since September 11, new lawless rules apply to Muslims in cases of so-called terrorism. After a three-week trial, the four were convicted, based on Hussain's testimony and various video clips, in which, for example, Cromitie fabricates a story about blowing up a police station.

None of the four said anything at their trial--their lawyers advised them not to testify, something that David regrets today. He says he would have had a lot to say about issues that were never raised at the trial. None of the men gave their side of the story, so only one side--the FBI's side--came out at the trial.

Alicia McWilliams, David's aunt, has been the leading advocate on behalf of the four. She spoke to Daphna Thier about where the case is at currently, about the ongoing grassroots campaign on behalf of the four defendants and why this case has national and even international significance.

WHERE HAS the case been at since the four were convicted last October?

IN MARCH, the attorneys filed motions against the outrageous government misconduct, claiming that this was entrapment. We were in court on March 24 when the judge listened to motions. But last month, those motions were denied. We are now waiting for the sentencing, scheduled for June 7.

We really thought the judge was on our side. She pointed out everything the informant did and the government did. The judge talked about the informant's perjury, and yet no one holds the informant accountable. She admits he was on the stand lying. She pointed out everything I'd been fighting for.

But nobody holds the government accountable. They used these individuals and justified it by them being ex-offenders, claiming that innocent minded people wouldn't do this. That's why the judge denied the motions.

You have one body of government saying they want to rehabilitate people coming out of prison. And on the other hand, we have the government manipulating the fact that they are ex-offenders.

Protesters demand freedom for the Newburgh Four
Protesters demand freedom for the Newburgh Four

ARE YOU anticipating that the four will receive a life sentence?

YES, WE understand they are going to get life. They were charged with eight counts, and each count carries a life sentence.

YOU HAVE been a tireless activist and an advocate for your nephew's case, and you founded the Justice for Newburgh 4. How did you found the campaign and with whom? Why did you think a grassroots campaign was needed?

I STARTED going out on my own, and it just started happening. I advocated for my family, because I knew it was bulls--t from day one. I knew that boy didn't have the means or the skills or the money. Where are you going to get missiles in the 'hood?

From doing presentations and speaking out, people started to get involved, and that's how we founded the Justice for Newburgh 4. Today, we have law students from New York University on board. Project Salaam, Peace for Justice, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement have also lent their support and solidarity.

We've got to keep fighting. This is just the beginning. We understand the core of the issue is: Who do we report the government to? Is the government above the law? You can't have the end justify the means. The judge said we, the supporters, don't understand the law. We understand corruption. It's very transparent.

The people have to stick together and stand up for justice, because no one else is going to do it for us. Only the people mind that this case was used for political gain. We have to make our voices heard. This is a miscarriage of justice.

WHAT HAS Justice for the Newburgh 4 been up to since the conviction and now following the recent rejection of the motions by the judge? What sort of plans do you have in mind for the post-sentencing period?

WE HAVE been out in the community getting letters signed for the judge, asking for a new trial. We held days of action out in different neighborhoods and in front of the courthouse and even City Hall, calling for real justice and getting people to read about the case and sign our letters. We got the media involved--Democracy Now! had a great piece on the case, and the Village Voice had a six page cover article.

The mainstream media creates fear among the people. I question a lot of stuff now--I don't believe everything I read. With the Newburgh 4, the media went on a rampage the day they were arrested. They were guilty until proven guilty. They really blast degraded these men--until we started to fight back and say: "No! This is not how it went down!"

Since we've started making so much noise about entrapment, we haven't been hearing every week about new cases with the same script. They know they can't get away with it that easily anymore.

Right now, we aren't taking any actions, but we have a meeting coming up about strategizing. What to do next and where do we go from here. I think we need to go to the congressional level. Local council members have refused to take a stand. So we're going to have to go up to a higher level.

What is the significance of this case in the broader context of the criminal justice system?

WE SEE them make new laws. They make new laws in this "war on terror"--they write a script and create a plot. They are turning on their own American citizens. This is how far they would go.

The justice system is so corrupt and crooked that it's unbelievable. I can't even call it a system right now. Even the judge is trying to justify what the government did--even as she pointed out that everything they did wrong, and despite the fact that this prosecution was, in her opinion, a waste of funds.

WHAT IS the significance of this case in the broader context of the domestic "war on terror"?

THERE HAS been a whole series of cases like my nephew's. And in all these entrapment cases, no defendant has ever won. We thought this case would be different.

The informant was told that [the people he was to approach] have to be Muslims. So they're going after a specific group--Muslims. And they're instilling fear in the community, and creating hate among people. But it's not only fear--it's international. From Iraq to Palestine, they are targeting Muslims. I was wondering what we're doing over there. But now I see it's all intertwined. It's all about oil and control and now its flowing over here.

It's very wicked. They have turned on their own citizens. We are casualties of war. They don't care about my nephew. I don't understand what Obama's doing--if this is the kind of change he was talking about, we're in a lot of trouble.

WHY SHOULD people care about the outcome of this case? Why should they get involved?

IT COULD be them next. Their family could be next. The government doesn't care who it is. People need to come out in solidarity like in Martin Luther King Jr.'s time. This affects us, our future and our criminal justice system. It affects us all as citizens and human beings. This is a human issue. When you target one community, one religion, you target us all, because you could target any one of us.

No one would ever think that their family would be pulled into this. I'm turning 51, and I've gone through many tribulations in my life, but I will not walk in fear. This is unjust, that's why I'm going to keep going--and fight by David's side.

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