Calling the destructive acts committed by a pair of 19-year-olds the sine qua non of terrorism, New Jersey’s appeals court refused to toss their conviction as unconstitutional.
TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — Two men convicted under New Jersey’s Anti-Terrorism Act for fire-bombing and vandalizing five Jewish houses of worship nearly a decade ago lost appellate challenges Thursday.
Affirming 35-year sentences for Anthony Graziano and Aakash Dalal, the New Jersey Appellate Division found that the men’s anti-Semitic spree was indeed terroristic, regardless of whether the two had any larger political goals by destroying the Jewish temples.
“Considered in totality,” Judge Robert Gilson wrote in the 37-page opinion, “a jury could reasonably conclude that defendants engaged in a campaign of actions to instill fear in the Jewish community. … [The two men] were on a clear notice that such a campaign would be correctly perceived as terrorism because its purpose was to instill fear in people of the Jewish faith.”
When the campaign began in early December 2011, residents of Maywood, N.J., awoke to find swastikas and the phrase “Jews did 9/11” spray-painted on the entrance of the town’s Beth-Israel temple. Three other Jewish temples were similarly vandalized, two hit with Molotov cocktails, in the ensuing weeks. A rabbi and his family, including five children, lived at the temple in Rutherford that caught fire, though he suffered only minor burns and his family suffered no other injuries.
A fifth temple was nearly vandalized: Surveillance cameras captured the image of a person wearing a hooded jacket loitering near its front at 2 o’clock in the morning, and police discovered Molotov cocktails and bottles holding gasoline in a nearby wooded area.
Meanwhile police tracked cans of hairspray and Crush soda found at one of the temples to a Walmart in Bergen County. Anthony Graziano was identified by the Walmart surveillance camera making the purchase, and the 19-year-old was arrested after a copy of “The Anarchist Cookbook” and evidence from the fires were found in his house during a police search.
The case didn’t end with Graziano’s admission to throwing the Molotov cocktails. After police searched his laptop computer, they found instant message conversations with somebody with the screen name “QuantumWorm.”
A day later, Aakash Dalal, also 19, told police he knew Graziano but thought him to be crazy. Dalal was arrested weeks later, after which he admitted to using the “QuantumWorm” moniker, said he was present during two of the vandalizations and acknowledged he had egged Graziano to perform the attacks, though he denied he had any anti-Semitic beliefs.
In transcripts of the instant messages with Graziano, however, the Indian-American Dalal wrote, “The Jews got what they deserved tonight,” and said Graziano was “being honored” by some mysterious underground group. “You are the leader in this area,” he wrote to Graziano. “You’ve surpassed what I’ve done.”
Other instant messages between the two showed how they coordinated the attacks and gleefully followed news of the vandalization.
The duo tried a number of tactics during the trial, including to dismiss the terrorism charges and to recuse the entire Bergen County judiciary, but ultimately they were both tried and convicted in 2017 of first-degree terrorism, arson, as well as other charges.
On appeal, Graziano argued New Jersey’s Anti-Terrorism Act, passed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, was unconstitutionally vague. The court said, however, that Graziano and Dalal’s own words sealed their fates, quoting the men as having said they wanted to leave the Jewish community in Bergen County “shaking in their fucking Jew boots.” They also intended for the fires to cause fatalities.
“There was nothing vague about their purpose to promote an act of terror,” Gilson wrote, adding that Graziano and Dalal planned to “terrorize Jewish people throughout northern New Jersey and beyond.”
The Anti-Terrorism Act targets any crime against five or more persons that promoted “an act of terror” to influence government policy, sought to impair or interrupt public communications, utilities, public services, or transportation, or targeted public or private buildings. Arson is one of 21 crimes listed under the act.
In 2019, state lawmakers amended the act to include the goal of influencing or inciting terror based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other characteristic protected under anti-discrimination laws.
Dalal and Graziano were the first to be convicted under the statute. During sentencing, Pessy Schuman, the ex-wife of the rabbi at the Rutherford temple who managed to escape that fire unharmed, urged the judge to hand down a harsh sentence, one that would say, “never again in America, never again anywhere.”
While Dalal and Graziano also claimed their 35-year sentences were far too harsh, Gilson dismissed that concern, noting similar penalties among other states for terrorism, and their wish for fatalities.
Dalal was represented by attorney Alan Zegas, while Graziano was represented by attorney John Albright. Neither attorney immediately responded to phone calls and emails seeking comment.