Judge orders release of 'Newburgh Four' defendant and blasts FBI's role in terror sting

A man convicted in a post-9/11 terrorism sting was ordered freed from prison by a judge who criticized the FBI for relying on an "unsavory” confidential informant for an agency-invented conspiracy to blow up New York synagogues and shoot down National Guard planes.

U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon on Friday granted James Cromitie, 58, compassionate release from prison six months after she ordered the release of his three co-defendants, known as the Newburgh Four, for similar reasons. The four men from the small river city 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of New York City were convicted of terrorism charges in 2010.

Cromitie has served 15 years of his 25-year minimum sentence. The New York-based judge ordered Cromitie’s sentence to be reduced to time served plus 90 days.

Prosecutors in the high-profile case said the Newburgh defendants spent months scouting targets and securing what they thought were explosives and a surface-to-air missile, aiming to shoot down planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh and blow up synagogues in the Bronx. They were arrested after allegedly planting “bombs” that were packed with inert explosives supplied by the FBI.

Critics have accused federal agents of entrapping a group of men who were down on their luck after doing prison time.

In a scathing ruling, McMahon wrote that the FBI invented the conspiracy and identified the targets. Cromitie and his co-defendants, she wrote, “would not have, and could not have, devised on their own a crime involving missiles that would have warranted the 25-year sentence the court was forced to impose."

"The notion that Cromitie was selected as a ‘leader’ by the co-defendants is inconceivable, given his well-documented buffoonery and ineptitude," she wrote.

Cromitie was bought into the phony plot by the federal informant Shaheed Hussain, whose work has been criticized for years by civil liberties groups.

McMahon called him “most unsavory” and a “villain” sent by the government to “troll among the poorest and weakest of men for ‘terrorists’ who might prove susceptible to an offer of much-needed cash in exchange for committing a faux crime.”

Hussain also worked with the FBI on a sting that targeted an Albany, New York, pizza shop owner and an imam that involved a loan using money from a fictitious missile sale. Both men, who said they were tricked, were convicted of money laundering and conspiring to aid a terrorist group.

Hussain attracted fresh attention in 2018 when a stretch limo crashed in rural Schoharie, New York, killing 20 people. Hussain owned the limo company, operated by his son, Nauman Hussain.

Nauman Hussain was convicted of manslaughter last year and is serving five to 15 years in prison.

Cromitie’s attorney, Kerry Lawrence, said Saturday he had not yet been able to reach his client, but that Cromitie's family was very happy.

“I’m obviously thrilled that Mr. Cromitie will be released from prison, but still believe that his conviction was entirely the product of government entrapment,” Lawrence wrote in an email. “Seeing as he was hounded and manipulated by the government informant way more than any of ... the other defendants who were previously ordered released, it would have been shocking if Judge McMahon didn’t grant our motion.”

Calls seeking comment were made Saturday to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office in New York City.