Fort Dix plotter: Lawyer refused to negotiate

February 5, 2009 10:43:26 AM PST
One of five men accused of plotting an attack on a New Jersey Army installation has told a judge that his lawyer failed him by not trying harder to strike a plea bargain. Serdar Tatar and the four other Muslim immigrants - all of whom had lived for years in the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill - were convicted by a federal jury in December of conspiring to kill military personnel. Prosecutors said the men were considering an attack on Fort Dix, which the Army uses primarily to train reservists for deployments in Iraq.

All five men were acquitted on charges of attempted murder. All except Tatar were also convicted of weapons charges. They face life in prison when they're sentenced in April.

In a letter sent to U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler last month, Tatar writes that he's innocent, but may have benefited from a plea deal. "I wanted to mitigate the risk of conviction," wrote the 25-year-old Turkish-born former convenience store clerk in Philadelphia.

He claims lawyer Richard Sparaco didn't want to negotiate and told him it was a "once-in-a-lifetime career-making case" and that he needed the money. He said he was firing Sparaco, who was appointed by the judge.

Sparaco denies saying those things to Tatar.

The lawyer said Thursday that he did propose a plea deal to the government in which Tatar would have received a lighter sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to lesser charges, such as obstruction of justice, failure to report a crime or providing firearms to an illegal immigrant.

"The government's position was from the beginning that all defendants had to plead guilty to Count 1 - the conspiracy charge - and they all had to face life in prison," Sparaco said. That is the same penalty the men face now that they've been convicted by a jury.

Sparaco, who has an office in Cherry Hill, said that he is not surprised that his client is criticizing him now that he faces life in prison.

Tatar also said he wanted to testify at the trial, but that Sparaco did not let him. None of the defendants testified.

Just days after the guilty verdict, Sparaco filed a motion asking the judge to overrule the jury's decision, claiming that it was not supported by the evidence in the case.

In the trial, which lasted for eight weeks, the government did not assert that the men had a specific plan for when or where to attack, but did portray the men as fitting the mold of homegrown terrorists. According to testimony, Tatar gave a government informant a map of Fort Dix that he took from his father's pizza shop, which delivered to the installation.

Kugler has scheduled a hearing in the case for March 4.

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