From 9/11 to Tevlin murder: A history of N.J.’s untested terrorism law

Dan Ives NJ.com

Last week, an Essex County grand jury returned an indictment officially charging Ali Muhammad Brown with the murder of a 19-year-old college student from Livingston.

But the decision came with a twist.

Brown, who told investigators he killed Tevlin and three Washington men as retribution for lives lost due to U.S. military action in the Middle East, was also charged with terrorism – a rarity even in the state’s busiest courthouses.

Prosecutors said it marked the first time in state history the charge had been levied in connection with a homicide case, and the law has been used very sparingly during its 13 years on the books.

Below is a brief history of its creation and its use.

Post-9/11 origins

The law was enacted in 2002, part of a flurry of statutes passed by states around the country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

While many are not commonly used, they retain an important function for states that were suddenly faced with the possibility that their governments and infrastructures could be vulnerable to attack, according to Edward Turzanski, who co-chairs the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Center for the Study of Terrorism.

“States started to replicate federal statutes, because there’s always the concern when things cross jurisdictional lines. You want to make sure that your interests are protected and that you have a bite of the apple as well,” he said.

New Jersey’s law defines terrorism as a first-degree crime, encompassing acts that intend to influence or affect the conduct of government, terrorize five or more persons, interrupt public services such as communications, transportation or utilities, or terrorize five or more persons.

A conviction under the law is punishable by between 30 years to life in prison, without possibility of parole, except in cases involving death, which carry an automatic sentence of life without parole.

Restaurant robbery

According to the state Attorney General’s office, the first recorded use of the law did not come until 2011, when a Hudson County grand jury indicted Victor Pagan and Manuel C. Lopez for terrorism, robbery, kidnapping and a host of other offenses.

The two men had been arrested in November 2010 after breaking into a Secaucus Restaurant Depot, where they bound and assaulted six employees, reports said.

Attorney General’s office spokesman Peter Aseltine said the terrorism charge was later dropped as part of a plea bargain for the two men.

The only other recorded use of the law came in 2013, when Aakash Dalal and Anthony Graziano were indicted for allegedly firebombing and vandalizing a number of Jewish temples in Bergen County in 2011 and 2012.

The two teenagers, who authorities say had been friends since middle school and meticulously plotted the attacks, both remain behind bars. Dalal, a former Rutgers student, has since been charged with plotting to kill Bergen County Assistant Prosecutor Martin Delaney.

Both have also been charged with bias intimidation, arson and other offenses. While none of the temple attacks resulted in any deaths, they could still face decades in prison if convicted.

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