N.Y. Bombing Trial at Key Point

Government now tries to prove defendants are actually linked to the Trade Center crime

AFTER 60 witnesses, the government is finally getting ready to try to tie the World Trade Center bombing defendants to the crime.

This linkage will be essential if the government is to prove its case against the four defendants accused of setting off the bomb Feb. 26. This phase of the trial will be the most difficult for the government, since the four say the van that allegedly carried the bomb was stolen from them.

Defense lawyers are poring over transcripts of tapes made by Emad Salem, an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Without the knowledge of the FBI, Mr. Salem taped his conversations. The defendants are mentioned in the tapes, which gives them relevance to this trial.

However, the tapes and Salem are expected to be a more significant feature in a second trial, which will begin next year, of 16 defendants accused of conspiring to blow up the United Nations and the major tunnels under the Hudson River. Among those defendants is Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind Islamic fundamentalist cleric accused of inspiring the plot.

The tapes, says Michael Tigar, a University of Texas law professor, illustrate the problems in dealing with informants. ``They have their own agenda, and, in case after case, the government is embarrassed when it turns out they have insufficiently controlled the informant and failed to ensure the informant abides by elementary rules,'' Mr. Tigar says.

At the very least, the tapes will aid the defense in its cross-examination of Salem in the current trial. And the defense will likely try to prove that Salem had a significant role in the plot. In the tapes, which were given to defense attorneys only last Tuesday, Salem says: ``And we know that the bomb start to be built. By who? By your confidential informant. What a wonderful, great case.''

Tigar says it is not unusual for informants to be deeply involved in the crimes they are reporting on. ``Informers get paid for results, so they go ahead and commit the crime and frame the defendants,'' he says. Money, in fact, figures prominently in the tapes. An FBI agent counsels Salem in the tapes to ask for $1.5 million and bargain down from there. Salem replies that there will be no bargaining.

The defense lawyers have had no comment on the tapes since federal Judge Michael Mukasey, the judge in the second trial, barred lawyers from disseminating them. But New York City newspapers carried excerpts from the transcripts.

The lawyers for the four defendants now on trial also had no comment about the tapes. ``We haven't had a chance to read them, and they are under a judge's order [barring dissemination],'' says Austin Campriello, one of the defense lawyers.

Aside from making the FBI look like the Keystone Cops, they may not play that large a role in the case, says Vivian Berger, the vice dean at Columbia University Law School. For example, the defense can't blame the police for not arresting the men sooner.

At the same time, she says it is ``virtually impossible to prove entrapment under federal law.'' If the defense uses the claim of entrapment, the prosecutor can then show that the defendants had a ``predisposition'' to commit the crime.

Predisposition can include political and religious associations. The preaching of Sheikh Rahman, for example, can be introduced. It is also likely that the prosecutor will be researching the role each defendant played in the shooting of the Jewish leader Meir Kahane. One of the defendants, for example, is in jail for a weapons offense related to that crime.

``The defense has to show that it would be completely out of character for the men to commit the offense,'' Berger says.

The larger trial is not expected to begin until late 1994. The ongoing trial of the four defendants - Mohamed Salameh, Mahmoud Abouhalima, Nidal Ayyad, and Ahmad Ajaj - is expected to continue into early 1994.

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