CAMDEN, N.J. — A federal jury on Monday found five local men guilty in a conspiracy to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, capping a 14-month federal investigation, a 29-day trial and about 38 hours of deliberations.
Mohamad Shnewer, 23; Serdar Tatar, 25; and brothers Dritan, 30, Shain, 27, and Eljvir Duka, 25, all immigrant Muslims, were found not guilty of attempted murder, a heavier charge that suggested they had taken substantial steps toward carrying out the plan.
But the conspiracy conviction still carries the possibility of lifetime prison sentences for the men, four of whom also were convicted on weapons charges.
The 12 jurors reached their verdict about midday Monday after hearing arguments and testimony since October.
The bulk of the time -- 25 days -- was devoted to government evidence against Shnewer, Tatar and the Dukas.
Shnewer and the Dukas, all Cherry Hill residents, also were found guilty on weapons charges. Eljvir Duka was acquitted on one weapons charge.
Tatar, of Philadelphia, did not face any weapons charges. A sixth defendant, Agron Abdullahu, 26, of Atlantic County, pleaded guilty last year to a related weapons charge and is serving a 20-month prison sentence.
The five men are scheduled to be sentenced before U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler in April.
Until then, the men will remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, lodged in a federal prison in Philadelphia.
Defense attorney Rocco Cipparone said he is considering an appeal after the sentencing phase.
Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra Jr. said Monday he would seek maximum sentences and added that "only twisted criminals would enjoy watching the [terrorist-training] videos" played as evidence during the trial. "That was not just talk," Marra said.
He called the verdict an "affirmance of what we believed all along," saying that the jury "obviously took a very common-sense approach to the evidence."
Prosecutors also said the men had conducted surveillance at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware while considering it for a target.
Relatives of at least two of the defendants protested the verdict.
Faten Shnewer, the mother of defendant Mohamad Shnewer, said she believes her son was convicted because of his faith.
"That's the only reason, I'm sure -- 100 percent," Faten Shnewer said. "He never killed anybody."
The jurors, who deliberated for more then five days, did not immediately speak with the media, but released a three-paragraph written statement.
They called their work in the trial "one of the most difficult things we have ever had to do."
"The burden imposed on us has been heavy, but we are confident that our verdict has been reached fairly and impartially," the statement read.
Federal surveillance of the men came to end in May 2007, after Dritan and Shain Duka tried to buy a cache of AK-47s, M-16s and handguns in Cherry Hill, according to investigators.
Authorities had been tracking all the men much earlier, though -- since January 2006. That's when a Circuit City clerk spotted a video in which the suspects are shown firing weapons and shouting, "Allah Akbar!" -- an Arabic phrase meaning "God is great."
A paid government informant known as Mahmoud Omar soon worked his way into the group to record private conversations that spanned hundreds of hours.
The recordings became a flashpoint during the trial. Attorneys argued over whether the men's private comments reflected a serious motive rooted in a perceived holy war and clear murderous intentions, as the prosecution suggested.
Defense attorneys contended the recordings showed only a general sense of frustration and contemplation among Muslims upset in a post-9/11 world, but no solid evidence that the men were serious about launching an attack. They also argued that the group lacked the drive and the resources to follow through and execute such a deadly assault.
In more than six hours of closing arguments last week, they also said that Omar was instrumental in shaping the recorded conversations and pushing the defendants toward discussion of a terrorism plot.
Prosecutors disputed those statements in more three hours of their own closing arguments, pointing partly to Shnewer's recorded statements. At one point in August 2006, Shnewer was recorded referring to the "ones we are going to put bullets in their heads, God willing."
Separately, he was quoted as saying: "We're going to make them (the military) put their bases in the sea."
Prosecutors also alleged that the men fired at inflated balloons to simulate shooting people in the head. They said the men trained in the Poconos in Pennsylvania as preparation to attack a military installation.
The men were in the Poconos when they watched al-Qaida propaganda videos, prosecutors said, though defense attorney Michael Huff said that video-watching took up only an hour of a weeklong visit to the rural area.
"The defendants meant what they said," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Hammer said in closing arguments. "At no point in the 14-month investigation does Mohamad Shnewer ever retreat."
Defense attorneys, however, painted the Poconos trips as vacations and called into question Omar's credibility, citing his reported illegal drug use and apparent attempt to arrange an overseas killing.
Omar, one of two informants, was paid nearly $240,000 for his work in the case -- some of the money was reimbursement for expenses, Deputy U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick said.
"Omar led and led and pushed and pushed as far as he could," said Cipparone, addressing jurors last week. "But at the end of the day, he talked and talked . . . but was never going to walk the walk."
Cipparone called on jurors to "peel away" his client's recorded words and look at "his actions and his lack of actions." Each time Omar encouraged Shnewer to pursue weaponry, Cipparone said, Shnewer "has a reason not to do it."
At one point, Cipparone likened the defendants to "couch potatoes" who were incapable of following through on their own rhetoric. Defense attorneys also noted the defendants' apparent lack of electronic maps that would detail potential targets.
"Did they say some things? Yes," said Troy Archie, Eljvir Duka's attorney. "Did they form an agreement to kill some soldiers? Absolutely not."
During the closing arguments, Archie played an audio clip in which Eljvir Duka calls on Muslims to be honorable, good people.
"This is our biggest jihad right now -- to be good believers, to be good people," Eljvir Duka is heard to say.
In a final rebuttal, Fitzpatrick said the defense was just trying to deflect responsibility. He said the defense approach "was an obvious attempt to divert your attention" from the defendants' recorded words "that cry out for guilty verdicts."
And to the defense claim that the men were not capable of carrying out attacks, Fitzpatrick argued: "I would offer you that people who conspire to do this . . . are typically not the best and brightest society can offer."
Click to view image: 'e4e63e42bf8a-8657uj56yuj5.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|