By Michael Tarm
CHICAGO — A judge raised the specter of the Boston Marathon on Thursday as he sentenced a young Lebanese immigrant to 23 years in prison for placing a backpack he believed contained a powerful bomb along a bustling city street near the Chicago Cubs' baseball stadium.
Everyone at Sami Samir Hassoun's sentencing in a crowded courtroom in Chicago could not help but think of the bombs that went off a month ago concealed in backpacks on the East Coast, killing three people and wounding hundreds more, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman said.
"Let's give the elephant in the room a name: It's called the Boston Marathon," he said. "What would have happened had (Hassoun's) bomb been real would have made Boston look like a minor incident."
Earlier, prosecutor Joel Hammerman held up the ominous-looking but harmless device fashioned from a paint can that Hassoun put in a trash bin near Wrigley Field, placing it in front of the judge. Hassoun was told by undercover FBI agents, the prosecutor said, that it would destroy half the city block and kill dozens of people.
Minutes before the sentence was announced, Hassoun, a 25-year-old one-time Chicago baker and candy-store worker, apologized for what he'd done in a five-minute statement. Crying, he asked the judge if he could address his family and friends, and then turned to look at them on a nearby bench.
"I am sorry for the actions that I made and the shame I brought on you," Hassoun said, struggling to keep his composure. "I promise I will become a better person ... and make it up to you."
His mother sobbed aloud and when Hassoun finished, she said in an audible voice to her son, "I love you!"
Gettleman said he accepted the defense depiction of Hassoun as a uniquely gullible youth and that an informant may have been eager to please his FBI handlers by leading him on — though the judge said that was no excuse for Hassoun's crime.
During the hearing, prosecutors played secret video recordings of Hassoun during the sting in which he talks about killing people. He explains that one reason to stage the attack along bar-strewn Clark Street is that late-night revelers will be so drunk they wouldn't notice him dropping a bomb into the trash bin.
In another chilling video shown in court, Hassoun smiles and hums a tune to himself on the night of Saturday, Sept. 18, 2010 _ moments before heading off to what he thought would be a major terrorist attack.
"You feel good?" an undercover agent asks.
"Yeah, I'm (doing) great man," Hassoun responds.
In another video, Hassoun rambles incoherently about then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and the need to overthrow him in a revolution.
"When you see Mr. Hassoun on these tapes, all you can think of is that — this guy is really out to lunch," Gettleman said before turning to look at Hassoun. "I don't know what was going through your mind — and maybe you didn't know either."
Prosecutors also played a surveillance video of Hassoun, wearing a black hoodie, dropping the device into a trash bin at about 12:20 a.m. on Sept. 19, 2010 — while people crowded the sidewalk and music blared from area bars. FBI agents arrested him moments later.
As part of an agreement with the government, Hassoun pleaded guilty last year to two explosives counts. In return, he faced a sentencing range of 20 to 30 years, rather than a maximum term of life in prison.
One of Hassoun's attorneys, Alison Siegler, argued in court Thursday that the difference between two decades and three decades behind bars was enormous — and that a sentence of around 20 years would give Hassoun the chance to start a family, to go to school and see his parents as a free man again.
After court adjourned, Hassoun appeared to express relief as he smiled and hugged his attorney.
Before Thursday's sentencing, Hassoun also apologized in a seven-page letter to Gettleman. He also insisted he's worked hard at becoming a better person, including by doing yoga in jail.
The Beirut-born Hassoun blamed his actions in part on childhood trauma living in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. During civil strife there, Hassoun, then 11, witnessed machete killings from an apartment balcony, he wrote.
His family moved from Lebanon to the U.S. in 2008.
To dampen his lingering emotional pain, he wrote that he drank alcohol "all day, every day" for months before the would-be stadium attack in 2010. He favored whole bottles of Johnnie Walker Black, he wrote.
The defense suggested investigators may have come close to entrapping Hassoun, arguing the informant egged Hassoun on to acquiesce to ever-more ominous-sounding plots.
"(The informant) preyed on Sami's fantasies ... and agents helped make that fantasy come true," another of Hassoun's attorney's, Matthew Madden, told the court Thursday. "If left to his own devices, nobody would ever have heard of Sami Hassoun."
Prone to boasting and eager to impress, Hassoun even made absurd claims he could make a gun out of two pieces of wood and a spring, and a bomb out of baking soda, Madden said.
But so inept was Hassoun, he bought a backpack, walkie-talkies and some batteries agents asked him to buy and the FBI then incorporated it into the dud bomb fashioned at its lab in Quantico, Va., he added.
Prosecutors concede Hassoun did waffle about his plans, allegedly talking about profiting monetarily and then broaching the idea of poisoning Lake Michigan or assassinating Daley.
But prosecutors say Hassoun himself concluded that maximum damage could be inflicted by a blast next to the popular Sluggers World Class Sports Bar, just steps from Wrigley Field.
Undercover agents also repeatedly asked Hassoun if he wanted to back out, telling him there would be no shame in doing so. But he repeatedly declined, saying he wanted to press ahead," Hammerman told the court Thursday.
"It was his understanding that in 15 minutes (after placing the backpack in the bin), there would be death and carnage all over Clark Street," the prosecutor said.
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Copyright 2013 Associated Press