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Harlem Suarez and the Standard for Entrapment

By: Andrew Glenn

On July 25, 2015, a team of FBI agents broke cover with guns drawn and surrounded a white Toyota Camry in a Benihana parking lot. They immediately arrested a twenty-five-year-old man named Harlem Suarez. They then took his backpack containing a couple pound homemade nail bomb, which Suarez had just bought. Little to Suarez’s knowledge, the bomb was inert and sold to him by an undercover FBI agent. Suarez was then charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization and possession of a weapon of mass destruction. At trial, the Prosecution alleged that Suarez had knowingly purchased a bomb, acquired multiple weapons, scoped out potential locations, and made it known he intended to carry out an attack. The Defense argued that Suarez was a man below average intelligence and easily coerced by the FBI. Suarez was subsequently convicted of both counts and sentenced to life in prison, but the defense raised by Suarez’s attorney is not new and is a common criticism of law enforcement.

The defense that Suarez was entrapped by the FBI has been a defense raised by multiple alleged terrorists. At his trial, Harlem Suarez was painted as an inept adult who never grew up. He went through different phases in his life where he believed he would be the next popular musician (although he could not play an instrument), a high-level drug kingpin, and a professional powerboat racer. He was said to have delusions of grandeur to compensate for his low self-esteem and his lawyer painted his fascination with ISIS as another phase. More so, his defense was that he was of incredibly low intelligence and easily manipulated. His mother testified that Suarez was choked by the Umbilical cord at birth and came out of the womb “black.” He was extremely gullible and scored on the lower end of an IQ test later on in life. Suarez’s attorneys argued that due to his low IQ and the ease at which he could be manipulated, the FBI had coerced him into buying the bomb. They further cited that Suarez would drop contact with their informants for weeks at a time and would not respond to many of their messages. However, after 47 minutes the Jurors came back with a guilty verdict on both counts for Harlem Suarez.

The controversy behind the defense is two-fold. First, while Harlem Suarez may have had a genuine argument that he was coerced into buying a bomb, because of the nature of the crime, a judge and jury are much more likely to overlook the possibility of coercion. The second is that the bar on entrapment in US law is so high that it’s almost impossible for a terrorism suspect to prove. For entrapment to occur the government must “plant in an innocent person’s mind the disposition to commit a criminal act.” Entrapment is a complete defense to criminal charges which would mean that Suarez would walk free if his defense stood. The key standard for entrapment is inducement, which then begs the question whether or not the FBI Agents had induced him into buying the bomb. Suarez’s attorneys argued that because of his low IQ and ability to be manipulated, the FBI had induced Suarez into buying the bomb. However, the jury did not see it this way. It is hypothesized that the point of these cases is “getting [the terrorists] off the street as fast as possible” even if that means overlooking a solid defense. In a drug charge case, for example, a jury would be more apt to see if a defendant was induced. Yet, because of the nature of the crime, a jury would not want to take the chances of a possible terrorist going free even if there was a possibility that they were coerced. In a 2014 Human Rights Watch study, out of 27 defendants on trial for terrorism charges, 8 showed signs of severe mental deficiencies. In addition, “many terrorists are literally idiots” who lack the basic communication and intellectual abilities to make these decisions without some sort of outside force. These criticisms of entrapment show how Harlem Suarez’s defense did not hold up and why he was subsequently convicted of both charges and sentenced to life in prison.


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