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United States v. Suarez

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

June 27, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
HARLEM SUAREZ, a.k.a. Almlak Benitez, a.k.a. Harlem Quintana, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 4:15-cr-10009-JEM-1

          Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, WILSON, and JORDAN, Circuit Judges.

          WILSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         When the FBI arrested Harlem Suarez, he had already declared allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), attempted to recruit others to join him in destroying the United States, and amassed weapons and a bomb in order to carry out an attack on a Key West beach. After an eight-day trial, a jury found him guilty of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He now appeals, arguing that there was insufficient evidence for both of his convictions, and that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment and was procedurally and substantively unreasonable. After review, and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm.

         I. Background

         In March of 2015, Suarez created a Facebook account under the name "Almlak Benitez." He used it to post ISIS propaganda, to request help in building bombs, and to invite others to join him as a brother of the Islamic State. The FBI received a tip about the Benitez profile and linked the Benitez profile to Suarez. The FBI then used a confidential source named "Mohammed" to become Facebook "friends" with Suarez.

         Suarez and Mohammed engaged in numerous Facebook, phone, and text message conversations. During these discussions, Suarez expressed his intention to attack the United States and his desire to recruit others to join him. He told Mohammed that he had already obtained two handguns and a bulletproof vest, and that he was looking to obtain a long gun. He asked if Mohammed knew how to make bombs.

         Suarez and Mohammed also met in person. During one meeting, they went to a pawn shop in Key West to pick up an AK-47 rifle that Suarez had ordered. But because Suarez had incorrectly filled out the paperwork by indicating that he was buying the gun for someone else, he was not allowed to take possession of the gun. Afterwards, the pair began to make ISIS recruitment videos. Suarez dictated the script, which Mohammed transcribed. Suarez-dressed in a black tactical vest, a black shirt, a black face mask, and a yellow and black scarf-read the script while Mohammed recorded.

         In June, Mohammed introduced Suarez to another undercover FBI employee, "Shariff," who posed as a member of ISIS. Shariff claimed that he could supply explosive devices. Suarez expressed his desire to conduct multiple attacks on the Fourth of July at crowded locations and to place bombs under police cars. In July, Suarez delivered two boxes of galvanized nails, a pre-paid cellphone, a backpack, and $100 to Mohammed in order to have a bomb made. At that time, he expressed his plan to bury the bomb on a crowded beach and to detonate it with a cell phone. He also voiced his intention to place bombs under police cars, in front of police officers' homes, and in a mall.

         Shortly thereafter, another undercover FBI employee, "Omar," called Suarez, posing as the bomb-maker. They met in person a few days later and spoke in Omar's car. Suarez asked Omar to teach him how to make a bomb; Omar replied that he would teach Suarez at some point in the future. Omar handed the completed "bomb," which was not actually operable, over to Suarez. They discussed how to operate the cellphone detonator, and Suarez exited the car with the bomb. At that point, the FBI arrested Suarez.

         In post-arrest statements, Suarez told agents that he possessed three firearms-an AR-15 and two Glock handguns. He admitted that he had purchased the cellphone, backpack, and nails for the construction of the bomb, that the cellphone was to detonate the bomb, and that he planned to bury the device at the beach in Key West.

         A grand jury indicted Suarez on one count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2332a(a)(2) (Count One), and one count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, ISIS, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B(a)(1) (Count Two). On January 31, 2017, after an eight-day trial, the jury found him guilty on both counts. The district court sentenced Suarez to life in prison for the first count and to a concurrent twenty-year sentence for the second. Suarez timely appealed.

         II. Discussion

         A. Sufficiency ...


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