The tactics used by federal agents to befriend a young man professing jihadist sentiments — and to help him plot an attack on a military recruiting center in Catonsville — are becoming more common nationwide. But even as such cases raise questions about entrapment, legal experts say most defendants have a hard time convincing juries that they were unfairly targeted.
"Entrapment is a very difficult defense," University of Maryland law professor Michael Milleman said, a day after 21-year-old Antonio Martinez was accused of plotting to blow up the Armed Forces Career Center on Baltimore National Pike.
In building criminal cases, authorities must be careful to ensure that they don't plant the idea of violence in a suspect's mind, but simply nurture thoughts that the suspect already harbors. Police cannot cajole a person into a crime that he wouldn't otherwise commit.
"Police should not be entrapping people," Milleman said, while noting that amid heightened fears of terrorism, "this is a tough environment to be having that conversation."
From Washington to Chicago to Oregon and now Baltimore, undercover agents have cozied up to suspected terrorists, supplied them with fake bombs and arrested them when they tried to detonate the "explosives."
The FBI's approach is not very different from undercover cops pretending to be prostitutes or posing as children on the Internet to catch sex predators. They lure people into comfortable relationships and then pounce.
Court documents filed in support of Martinez's arrest describe his progression from posting harsh but vague rhetoric on Facebook to his alleged plotting to kill American soldiers.
The documents also show how an undercover FBI agent and an informant worked Martinez, convincing him that he had a friend and compatriot. Martinez believed the agent was an "Afghani brother" who shared a desire to kill Americans, the documents say.
The agent, according to the criminal complaint, convinced Martinez that bombing — rather than shooting up the recruitment center — "could do more harm here" than overseas. The agent provided the bomb itself — as well as the vehicle to carry it, a tutorial on detonating it, and an escort to the target. The agent even helped Martinez practice his driving skills.
Martinez's public defender, Joseph Balter, has not commented on his defense strategy. He did not return calls for comment Thursday.
But in similar cases nationwide, civil rights experts and defense attorneys have complained that police are pushing people into crimes they had no prior intention of committing. In some cases, the critics say, police are creating terrorists by instilling hate in people, then providing the means and expertise to make good on threats.
Police counter that they're stopping people already intent on carrying out attacks and preventing the deaths of countless Americans. Undercover work, they say, is a sure way of proving that the people being targeted had every intention of using violence to advance their goals.
Most legal experts reached Thursday by The Baltimore Sun said that barring any revelations, the FBI appears to be on solid ground in the Martinez case.
Still, many wondered how a young, newly baptized Christian who sold children's clothing at a suburban mall could on his own turn to radical Islam in just a few months. And there are key elements omitted from initial court documents filed in support of Martinez's arrest.
According to those documents, a confidential informant alerted authorities after seeing Facebook postings about oppression, hate and joining the mujahedeen. The informant — who is not described or named — then engaged Martinez in a series of conversations over several days, after which, court documents say, Martinez "approached [the informant] about attacking army recruitment centers."
The informant's side of the conversation is not revealed, and experts say that could be a telling factor in explaining how Martinez first developed any violent tendencies. Did the informant lead Martinez to escalate his words into violence?
Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, said there could be some concern about the undercover agent suggesting a bombing rather than a shooting, which Martinez allegedly had initially proposed.
Ross said agents should steer clear of "actually suggesting a means by which an individual can carry out an attack."
But others said that once a suspect indicates he wants to attack, the method is immaterial. Court documents say it was Martinez who picked the recruitment center as a target.
"If your intent is to do harm, does it really matter how you want to do it?" said Doug Ward, the director of the division of public safety leadership at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.