Temple-plot trial delayed over classified info

June 14, 2010 6:30:29 PM PDT
The federal trial of four men accused of plotting to blow up New York synagogues and shoot a missile at military planes was delayed Monday - probably for months - at the request of prosecutors after they were dealt a setback on evidence.

An angry Judge Colleen McMahon said she would consider a defense request to dismiss the case on grounds of government misconduct. She also set bail hearings next Monday for the defendants, who have been imprisoned more than a year.

Jury selection was to begin Monday, and McMahon also told 140 potential jurors to go home.

The surprise developments heartened the defendants' friends and relatives in the gallery.

"I sat there and cried," said Alicia McWilliams-McCullum, the aunt of defendant David Williams. "To hear the word `bail' ... at least there's hope."

Defense attorneys would not comment outside the courtroom. The U.S. attorney's office also declined to comment.

James Cromitie, 44; Onta Williams, 32; David Williams, 28; and Laguerre Payen, 27, are accused of placing what they thought were bombs outside two Bronx synagogues last year. They are also accused of planning to use what they thought was a live Stinger missile against planes at an Air National Guard base near Newburgh, the small city north of New York where they lived.

They have pleaded not guilty and claim they were entrapped by a federal informant who proposed and directed the plot and then supplied the fake bombs and false missile.

The judge ruled last week that a document in which a federal agent dismisses the likelihood that anything bad would happen at Stewart had to be turned over to the defense.

Prosecutor David Raskin asked McMahon to reconsider, but she announced Monday she would not. Raskin then said that if that document had to be turned over, there could be many more - some of them classified - that would also have to be given to the defense.

"This case has lots of tentacles," he said.

He said it would take months to find the documents and get security clearances for defense lawyers and the judge's staff - "a cumbersome, step-by-step process."

Raskin also said the government might choose to appeal the ruling.

The judge, who set the trial date months ago, said it was unthinkable that prosecutors had not been prepared for the possibility that classified documents might be involved.

"There is no excuse for the government not having identified this as a possibility, that we were going to get into secret issues," said McMahon. "It's beyond my comprehension that we're in the pickle we're in."

Defense lawyers quickly moved for dismissal. Cromitie's attorney, Vincent Briccetti, said there was no way to get a fair trial: if a trial were held now, the defendants would not have material that might help them, but a delay would deny the defendants their right to a speedy trial.

"It's really an untenable situation for us and grossly unfair," Briccetti told the judge.

The judge asked for written arguments by July 2 and said the request for dismissal was "not insignificant." She added, however, that dismissing a case is "a very tough thing for a judge to do."

Raskin said the delay was not in bad faith because the prosecution and the judge simply had different views of what material had to be turned over to the defense.

The judge said the government could appeal her ruling on the document but must do so within 48 hours.

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