Attorneys told a federal judge Tuesday that a Lebanese immigrant accused of placing a backpack he thought held a bomb near Chicago's Wrigley Field will plead guilty under an agreement worked out with prosecutors _ a deal experts say may reflect the enormous odds the 23-year-old would face at trial.
Sami Samir Hassoun had pleaded not guilty to charges that he received a fake bomb he believed was real from undercover FBI agents last year and then dropped it into a trash bin on a busy street near the home of the Chicago Cubs.
At a hearing in Chicago, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman set a date of Feb. 14 for Hassoun to change his plea. But neither side offered details about exactly what charges he would plead guilty to, and government and defense attorneys declined to comment after the hearing.
Hassoun has a strong incentive to reduce his potential prison time via a plea deal. A conviction on just one of the charges against him _ attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction _ carries a maximum life prison term.
Legal expert Karen Greenberg says suspects in terrorism cases have one overwhelming incentive to cut a plea agreement and to avoid taking the case to a jury: They almost never win at trial.
"And there's a very realistic chance of a very high sentence after trial. You just can't play around," said Greenberg, a director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School in New York.
According to her center, out of 42 defendants charged with using or attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction since the Sept. 11attacks, there has been just one acquittal; 15 defendants have been convicted, five had the charge dropped and 21 of the cases are still pending.
Another expert says federal authorities also like to avoid a trial when possible, in part from fear that revelations in court could inspire copycats or inadvertently aid would-be terrorists honing their own plots.
"Maybe the same methods can be used again or terrorists can learn from another guy's mistakes," said Michael Fagel, a professor who teaches about homeland security at Northwestern University.
Defense attorneys have described Hassoun as gullible and prone to wild boasts _ but as having no links to extremists. They also told reporters last year they would explore the possibility of using the trial defense that Hassoun was duped by federal agents.
A point of contention in recent filings was a defense request for the government to release the identity of an informant who tipped off authorities about Hassoun. That informant befriended Hassoun while at least two FBI undercover agents also got in touch, posing as co-plotters.
The defense claimed the informant would have been a key figure at trial because they allege he at one point threatened Hassoun not to back out of the plot. Prosecutors say there's no evidence of any such threat and that identifying the confidential source would open him up to reprisals.
While the pressure to cut a plea deal is heaviest on the defense, Greenberg says prosecutors often don't want to see their investigations subject to scrutiny. She said legitimate questions have been raised in this and other cases about whether there was some element of entrapment by federal agents.
The jailed Hassoun, a one-time bakery worker, did not appear at Tuesday's hearing. He has shown up at earlier hearings _ occasionally lifting his shackled hands to blow kisses to his mother on a spectators' bench.
According to prosecutors, Hassoun waffled about his plans, allegedly talking about profiting monetarily and another time broaching the idea of poisoning Lake Michigan or assassinating then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
While it was harmless, prosecutors have said the device planted by Hassoun near Wrigley Field appeared ominous _ a paint can fitted with blasting caps and a timer.
Hassoun was deadly serious about the plot and it was "not a matter of talk or bravado," prosecutor Joel Hammerman told a judge shortly after Hassoun's arrest last year.