By Basil Katz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lawyers defending four men convicted of plotting to bomb New York synagogues asked an appeals court to consider an unusual argument -- that the government improperly exploited a love relationship between the main defendant and the case's informant.
The four, arrested in an FBI sting operation in May 2009, were each sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of 25 years in prison last year. A Manhattan federal court jury found them guilty after a heated two-month trial in late summer 2010.
At trial, defense attorneys said the men, James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laguerre Payen, were not guilty because they were entrapped in a plan devised by the FBI and orchestrated by the confidential informant, Shahed Hussein.
This week, a new team of defense lawyers told an appeals court that the convictions should be tossed because the men were entrapped and their due process rights were violated.
One of the arguments went a step further. It accused the government of misconduct because investigators had improperly encouraged Hussain to make Cromitie believe the two had a special bond, bordering on love.
"When Cromitie said 'I love you' to Hussain, it was no mere pleasantry," a document filed with the appeals court said.
Hussain was a Pakistani motel owner who has participated in other FBI investigations. He manipulated Cromitie's affection for him, the defense lawyers said, and by encouraging Cromitie's devotion, convinced him to carry out a conspiracy to bomb synagogues and to shoot down military planes at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York, with Stinger surface-to-air missiles.
Cromitie, a low-level drug offender who at the time of their meeting in June 2008 had a night-time job restocking shelves at a Walmart, was especially susceptible to Hussain's entreaties, the brief said.
"Without the love that Hussain pretended to have for Cromitie, and that Hussain fully exploited, this supposed crime would never had occurred," the lawyers said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan declined to comment on the appeals briefs.
Controversy has surrounded the case in which the presiding judge, Colleen McMahon, repeatedly criticized the government's handling of the investigation.
Prosecutors said the plot was serious and that Cromitie, accused of recruiting the three others, was motivated by anti-Jewish sentiments and wanted to participate in holy war.
(Editing by Greg McCune)