The defense attorneys for a man arrested for conspiring to commit a mass shooting at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Milwaukee last year are claiming entrapment by the FBI informants in the case. Samy Hamzeh was nabbed in January 2016 after discussing the terrorist plot with what turned out to be undercover FBI agents and receiving a machine gun and silencer from them. Now his lawyers are seeking his release, alleging he was conned into it by the agents.
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel yesterday:
Sixteen months after the FBI announced it had thwarted a planned mass shooting in downtown Milwaukee, lawyers for the man charged in the plot say he adamantly refused to participate when pressed by informants they say had been goading their client for months.
The claim comes in a new court motion that Samy Mohamed Hamzeh, 25, should be released on bail pending his trial, now set for February.
The motion reveals new details about the defense's claim of entrapment, gleaned from hours of now-translated Arabic conversations the informants recorded.
His family says Hamzeh, who was born in the U.S. but lived much of his childhood in Jordan before moving to Milwaukee at age 19, was set up by the FBI.
The request for Hamzeh's release says he is a U.S. citizen with no criminal record, a solid work history and a job waiting for him, and a family who supports him. They argue Hamzeh should be released on GPS monitoring and give up his passport.
While the news of Hamzeh's arrest in early 2016 carried overtones of terrorism — federal prosecutors said he was planning to kill at least 30 people to "defend Islam" — the resulting charges were two counts of possessing a machine gun and one count of possessing a silencer, all of which he bought for $570 from undercover FBI agents. Each count carries up to 10 years in prison.
Hamzeh's attorneys, federal public defenders Craig Albee and Joseph Bugni, note that the criminal complaint against their client fails to mention that despite the hours of recorded Arabic conversations with the informants, he ultimately "rejected their overtures and lectured his informant friends about why such a plan would be wrong."
The motion says the complaint also doesn't describe everything that led up to Hamzeh briefly possessing the machine guns and silencer in January 2016, when he was arrested. The informants, the motion states, "frequently lobbied Hamzeh to get a machine gun despite his repeated protests that all he wanted was a legal handgun to protect himself."
According to the defense motion, discussion of the Masons first came in January 2016.The informants told Hamzeh the Masons were affiliated with the Islamic State and the enemy of Islam, and that three men had watched YouTube videos purportedly showing Masons eating hearts.
Hamzeh later told others about how Mike had begun constantly denigrating Masons and first floated the idea of attacking the Milwaukee center.
The Scottish Rite group was actually a fraternal organization whose membership had declined from 6,000 in 1985 to about 700 today. The center was mostly rented out for weddings and other events and is now planned for sale and conversion into a hotel.
A psychiatrist who evaluated Hamzeh in jail concluded he does not fit a profile of someone who would kill strangers and "has a strong moral code with a very prominent conscience and empathy."
His attorneys note that by the time Hamzeh's trial would start in February, he will have been in jail 25 months, and that even if convicted, the guideline range sentence for the crimes is 24 to 30 months.
The defense characterizes much of the recorded talk as mere bravado by Hamzeh and obvious attempts by Steve and Mike to steer him toward discussion of jihad and machine guns.
"There is also no evidence that Hamzeh ever made any plans or was doing anything other than making empty boasts to express his resentment about Israel or to gain attention," reads their brief in support of the bond motion.
"That’s not to say the conversations aren’t unsettling, but there is nothing to show an intent to take the leap from pontificating within the comfort of Milwaukee’s coffee shops about Palestine and the treatment of Muslims to Hamzeh risking his life in Gaza."
For the background on this story, see these previous stories:
1/27/2016: FBI Stops Plan For Mass Shooting At Milwaukee Masonic Temple
2/10/2016: Milwaukee Man Indicted in Plan to Attack Masonic Center
8/29/2016: January Milwaukee Masonic Terror Plotter Update