Harlem Suarez, the 25-year-old convicted of buying a bomb and plotting to blow up a Florida Keys beach in allegiance to the Islamic State, deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
“The offense is such a serious offense that people need to know that you can’t do that,” Judge Jose Martinez said in U.S. District Court in Key West after an hour-long sentencing hearing. “He was talking the talk. He was walking the walk and was in possession of what he thought was a weapon of mass destruction.”
Suarez has the right to appeal but the federal system has no option of parole. Suarez was sentenced to life for attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and an additional 20 years, to be served at the same time, for “providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.”
After declaring Suarez “inept” and not even a decent speaker of his native Spanish language, Martinez called the young man’s actions in buying what he thought was a bomb after amassing two handguns and an AR-15 rifle “just nutty.”
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“It’s too much,” Martinez said as Suarez sat quietly beside two language interpreters and his parents watched from the back of the courtroom.
“I do think he could have done this,” the judge said after saying he had considered giving Suarez 50 years in prison.
In July 2015, Suarez, who lived with his parents in a Stock Island apartment just north of Key West, met with undercover federal agents he believed were ISIS sympathizers and purchased a backpack bomb. The bomb was inert but Suarez didn’t know that, prosecutors pointed out. A jury took 47 minutes to find him guilty as charged earlier this year.
“He posted a ton of pro-ISIS propaganda including graphic videos and photographs,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Anton said during the hearing. “When told the shrapnel would rip through people faster than bullets, he smiled and said, ‘Great, great.’ This defendant has shown no remorse. He has demonstrated no sense of responsibility.”
Defense attorney Richard Della Fera, who was not court appointed, argued Suarez wouldn’t have had the aptitude nor the nerve to detonate a bomb in public among innocent beach-goers.
Instead, Della Fera said, Suarez was swayed by the undercover agents and goaded into following through with his talk of buying a bomb.
The only testimony Tuesday came from psychologist Dr. Alejandro Arias, who said in evaluating Suarez he found a naïve, gullible man desperate for approval.
“I think he just got scared,” Arias said. “He continued acquiescing.”
Arias said Suarez told him he planned to throw the bomb into the mangroves so it wouldn’t harm anyone but the judge pointed out Suarez said this after the fact. But Arias also agreed with prosecutors that Suarez was a functional member of society who knew right from wrong.
Suarez also believed he was making plans with terrorists, the psychologist testified.
“In his mind, he felt he was directly dealing with ISIS,” Arias said.