Letters tell an alternate story in Fort Dix case

By: AP
By: AP

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. (AP) -- Relatives of five Muslim immigrants convicted of plotting to massacre U.S. soldiers last year are still professing the men's innocence.

Since their conviction, more than a half-dozen family members have sent letters to U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler asking for the verdicts to be overturned. The letters are the latest in a case where participants have come to see the judge as a pen pal: all five of the convicts have written Kugler at least once since they were arrested nearly two years ago.

The five, who lived in and around Philadelphia for years, were found guilty by a federal jury in December of conspiring to kill U.S. military personnel. They were acquitted of attempted murder after prosecutors acknowledged the men were probably months away from an attack and did not have a specific plan.

Prosecutors said the men were considering an attack on Fort Dix, which the Army uses primarily to train reservists for deployments in Iraq.

But defense lawyers had argued that the alleged plot was all talk - that the men weren't seriously planning anything and that they were manipulated and goaded by two paid FBI informants.

The newest letters are impassioned.

"There was no conspiracy with my sons ... they are good men with good hearts," wrote Zurata Duka, the mother of three of the men.

The men are due in court on Thursday for the first time since they were convicted for a hearing on their motions to have some of the jury's verdict dismissed. In legal filings, lawyers for the men - all foreign-born Muslims who lived for years in the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill - say the verdicts were not supported by the evidence presented in the case.

It's not unusual for someone convicted of a crime to make such a claim. In this case, the government filed a long brief arguing that there was ample evidence to convict the men. Prosecutors have said the men trained with weapons, talked about jihad and that at least two of them discussed how to attack Fort Dix, about 25 miles east of Philadelphia.

Through its verdict, the jury agreed with the government. After a trial that stretched for nearly two months last year, a jury took six days to find the men guilty of conspiracy charges but not guilty on attempted murder charges. Four of them were also convicted of weapons charges.

All the men could get life in prison if the sentencing hearings move ahead on schedule next month.

Convicted were: Mohamad Shnewer, a Jordanian-born cab driver; Turkish-born convenience store clerk Serdar Tatar; and brothers Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka, ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia, who had a roofing business. A sixth man arrested and charged only with gun offenses pleaded guilty earlier.

None of the men testified at the trial, but four of them have written letters to the judge since then to try to tell at least pieces of their side of the story.

Shnewer, who spent the most time speaking with one of the informants, apologized for getting the other men in trouble.

"I believe the jury's decision was derived from the lies and the allegations that I said about my co-defendants," he wrote in a January letter to Kugler.

Richard Sparaco, the lawyer for Tatar, cited that statement in a motion to try to show that his client was not in a plot.

The legal arguments, however, aren't likely to have the emotional punch expressed by the relatives' letters.

"I really hope that justice is near to us because I cant live without my husband, brother, and brother in laws," wrote Hnan Shnewer, the sister of Shnewer and the wife of Eljvir Duka.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has not responded to the letters on behalf of the convicts. Spokesman Greg Reinert said that the government do its talking in the courtroom.

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