CHICAGO – The defense depicts Sami Samir Hassoun as a uniquely gullible youth sucked into a terrorist plot during an alcohol-addled stretch of his life by an informant eager to please his FBI handlers.
Prosecutors, though, say the 25-year-old Lebanese immigrant showed enthusiasm and initiative, including by selecting a crowded street near Chicago's Wrigley Field as the place to plant a backpack he believed held a real bomb.
A federal judge will consider those competing portraits Thursday at Hassoun's sentencing hearing in Chicago.
The one-time bakery worker pleaded guilty last year to two explosives charges. As part of his plea deal with the government, he faces between 20 and 30 years in prison.
The Chicago man's sentencing comes in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing — a deadly attack that prosecutors could point to as an example of the chaos Hassoun had allegedly hoped to wreak.
At Thursday's hearing, government attorneys planned to display the fake bomb that undercover agents gave to Hassoun on a September weekend in 2010. It's a paint can fitted with blasting caps and a timer.
They also intend to play a surveillance video of Hassoun dropping the device into a trash bin near the Chicago Cubs' baseball stadium. FBI agents arrested him moments later.
Before Thursday's sentencing, Hassoun apologized in a seven-page letter to his sentencing judge, Robert Gettleman. He also insisted he has worked at becoming a better person, including by doing yoga in jail.
Hassoun, who was born in Beirut, also blamed his actions in part on trauma he said stayed with him since his childhood; he was living in Ivory Coast when bloody civil strife broke out in that African nation.
To dampen his emotional pain, he wrote that he drank alcohol "all day, every day" for months before the would-be attack. He favored whole bottles of Johnnie Walker Black, he wrote.
The multilingual Hassoun immigrated with his parents and a younger brother to the U.S. in the late 2000s and once aspired to become a doctor, his attorneys and relatives have said.
In a recent presentencing filing, the defense suggested investigators may have entrapped Hassoun — arguing the paid informant egged Hassoun on to acquiesce to ever-more ominous-sounding plots.
Hassoun did waffle about his plans, allegedly talking about profiting monetarily and then broaching the idea of poisoning Lake Michigan or assassinating then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, prosecutors have said.
But far from being led on, prosecutors say, Hassoun himself concluded that maximum damage could be inflicted by orchestrating a blast next to the popular Sluggers World Class Sports Bar, just steps from Wrigley Field.
"He selected the day and time at which to strike — midnight on a Saturday night — to maximize the number of prospective casualties," prosecutors said. He walked away expecting "chaos and carnage."
Undercover agents also repeatedly asked Hassoun if he wanted to back out, telling him there would be no shame in doing so. But he repeated declined, saying he wanted to press ahead, government filings say.
Another point of contention is motive.
The defense argues religious fervor did not drive Hassoun, making him less of a long-term threat. But prosecutors say he's dangerous, no matter the motive.
"His alleged lack of religious motivation would not have, in any way, dissipated the death and destruction caused by his actions," the government's presentencing filing says.
Hassoun had an incentive to agree to a plea deal since terrorist suspects rarely prevail at trial. If convicted at trial, he would have faced a maximum life sentence.
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