By Basil Katz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When four men planted what they thought were bombs outside two New York City synagogues were they predisposed to committing the crime? Or had they been encouraged by FBI promises of money and martyrdom?
Those were the arguments heard by a federal judge in U.S. District court in Manhattan on Thursday as the four appealed their conviction for the crime committed in May 2009. They face life in prison and are due to be sentenced April 8.
"The issue that I'm struggling with is ... the fact that they actually committed the crime is not proof of predisposition when entrapment is raised as a defense," Judge Colleen McMahon told the court on Thursday.
But success from using entrapment as a defense was extremely rare in federal terrorism cases, according to data from New York University's Center on Law and Security.
Since 2009, the FBI has arrested 41 people on terrorism charges through sting operations -- where law enforcement posed as extremist militants -- the Center said. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, 10 suspects in six trials have formally used entrapment as a defense and none were successful.
James Cromitie, 45, David Williams, 30, Onta Williams, 34, and Laguerre Payen, 29, were convicted by a jury in October last year of placing explosives in two cars parked outside synagogues in New York City's Bronx borough.
Their defense said on Thursday that the verdict should be thrown out because the men were not predisposed to commit the crime. Instead, the men, who had never previously expressed radical sentiments, were enticed by extravagant promises from an FBI informant, the defense said.
"It is the most elaborate sting operation, or manufacture of a phony plot, that certainly I've ever seen," said defense attorney Vincent Briccetti, who represents Cromitie.
Prosecutor Jason Halperin defended the FBI's duty to thoroughly investigate all cases, saying: "This was an elaborate sting operation, but it was lawful."
U.S. prosecutors said the lack of hesitation by the men showed they were ready and willing from the start.
"It is how they committed the crime that proves their predisposition," assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin said, "They did this because that's what they wanted to do."
(Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Michelle Nichols and Jerry Norton)