Conviction rate high in terrorism cases, even when informer used

Karen J. Greenberg in Tampa Bay Times, January 11, 2012

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TAMPA — An informer who led the FBI to a Pinellas Park terror suspect got paid to do so.

Along the way, the informer introduced the suspect to someone who seemed to have access to explosives: an undercover FBI agent.

The informer's and agent's prominent roles might trigger questions about the arrest Saturday of Sami Osmakac, 25, but they likely won't hurt the government's case, an expert says.

About 90 percent of federal terrorism cases result in a conviction, either through a plea deal or a trial, said Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School in New York.

"You don't see acquittals," she said.

The center has tracked hundreds of terrorism-related arrests since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but logged only nine acquittals, 13 complete dismissals and five vacated guilty verdicts.

And in the middle of the past decade, researchers saw an upswing in the use of informers, without a compromise in conviction rates.

An informer's presence has become commonplace as law enforcement agencies attempt to identify and neutralize lone wolves.

Informers have been used in 134 of 343 terrorism or national security cases since that September day, according to Susan Quatrone, assistant director of the center at Fordham Law.

About a third of the cases are not yet resolved.

But prosecutions relying on informers have not wilted in the courts. An extreme example:

In 14 stings, the informers or undercover officers played a primary role in the plot and were involved from — or near — the outset, the research shows.

Eight of the 14 were convicted at trial, three took plea deals and one, Wrigley Field bomb suspect Sami Hassoun, is expected to plead guilty. Two cases have not yet played out.

That conviction rate, so far: 100 percent.

The rate for all terrorism cases with an informer: 91 percent.

The rate for terrorism cases, period: 87 percent.

"The message is to take a plea," Greenberg said.

Overall, in cases with informers, more people have taken plea deals than have gone to trial.

Among the 40 informer cases that have gone to trial, 10 defendants argued entrapment.

None was successful.

Those cases all related to claims of entrapment by informers, and not undercover officers, the center's research shows.

Greenberg, an expert on civil liberties, read the federal complaint against Osmakac on Tuesday.

She noted that such cases often rely too heavily on the work of informers, who stand to gain financially or legally by helping authorities make a case.

She considered the role of the undercover FBI agent, whose conversations with Osmakac were secretly recorded, to be a somewhat positive sign.

"It's sobering to see an undercover," she said, "but I still think there's a lot here you're going to need to hear on the tape.

"There's enough doubt in my mind, having studied so many of these cases. You have to hear the tapes in court."