Is Emanuel Lutchman a mentally ill panhandler without the capacity to pull off an attack or a dangerous terrorist who would have killed people in the name of ISIS? Many Rochesterians have been debating this question since Lutchman’s arrest on New Year’s Eve.
The FBI says Lutchman, who wanted to join ISIS, planned to kill patrons at Merchant’s Grill that evening.
“The real question is whether or not somebody working for the government and being paid went out and solicited somebody who was weak and converted them into a target to be prosecuted and then claimed they foiled a terrorist plot,” said Bob Brenna, who is not involved in this case. “Or was this an instance where law enforcement was diligent enough to be able to stop us from a horrific act?”
The criminal complaint against Lutchman says he was communicating with someone online who was overseas whom he believed to be part of ISIS. The complaint says Lutchman provided screenshots of communications to an informant, but doesn’t offer evidence the online person was part of the terrorist group or even existed.
Andrea Prasow, an attorney with Human Rights Watch, said the case raises a number of red flags, starting with the U.S. Attorney’s press release announcing Lutchman’s arrest.
“This New Year’s Eve prosecution underscores the threat of ISIL even in upstate New York but demonstrates our determination to immediately stop any who would cause harm in its name,” the press release said.
“ISIS didn’t reach Western New York. The FBI reached Western New York,” said Prasow. “This sort of fear-mongering makes the public feel like they’ve been kept safe from a terrorist act and then when you look deeper, you realize the person who is being charged was never actually engaged in terrorism, was never in touch with any terrorists outside the country and so on.”
Prasow authored a 2014 report on 27 terror arrests. It found many of the suspects were poor and mentally ill, like Lutchman. His family says he has a history of suicide attempts and the FBI notes he has been subject to mental hygiene arrests. Lutchman was known around his neighborhood as a panhandler.
The Human Rights Watch report also questioned the role of paid informants in these cases. In Lutchman’s case, the only co-conspirators identified in the complaint were paid informants. One brought Lutchman to WalMart and paid for weapons and supplies to carry out an attack, because Lutchman had no transportation or money.
“We’ve definitely documented cases where it’s pretty clear the individuals don’t have the capacity to commit these crimes and only with the assistance of the FBI could they take any sort of reasonable step toward committing the crime,” said Prasow.
“An entrapment defense is predicated on someone would not have carried out the act were in not for the government,” said Brenna. “Whenever an informant has some benefit to be gained by being an informant, as opposed to helping society, that always raises a question.”
Buffalo attorney Florina Altshiler of the firm Russo Toner, who is not part of the case, believes the government may have a strong case. The criminal complaint outlines actions Lutchman allegedly took to support ISIS, including making a video, making statements and procuring supplies.
“The only thing that needs to be established to support the charge of the attempt is that he took a substantial step toward completing that act, not that he actually did it, not that he succeeded, not that he’s part of the terrorist organization, but that his goal was to help them,” Altshiler.
All of the attorneys say Lutchman’s mental health will likely become an issue in his court case, but Altshiler said the statements he allegedly made to the informants are damning.
“Those statements seem to be calculated, coordinated, coherent. Those factors bode against him having a mental condition that would eliminate the ability to commit such an act,” said Altshiler.
“Many times people who are disenfranchised, impoverished, unhappy, unstable, are targets for being grabbed by ISIS,” said Brenna. “On the other hand, at some point we have to look at the fact with certain weaknesses in an individual, it raises a more serious question of whether or not the person was talked into something.”
All of the attorneys believe the FBI has more evidence that has not been shared publicly. That evidence could be favorable or not favorable to Lutchman.
Lutchman is due back in court Friday.