Tatar v. United States, Civ. No. 13-3317 (RBK)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
Writing for the CourtROBERT B. KUGLER, U.S.D.J.
PartiesSERDAR TATAR, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.
Docket NumberCiv. No. 13-3317 (RBK)
Decision Date09 February 2016

SERDAR TATAR, Petitioner,

Civ. No. 13-3317 (RBK)


February 9, 2016




Petitioner, Serdar Tatar, seeks relief pro se under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 from his federal conviction and sentence. Mr. Tatar was convicted after a jury trial (along with his coconspirators Dritan Duka, Shain Duka, Eljvir Duka (collectively the "Duka brothers") and Mohamed Shnewer) of conspiracy to murder members of the United States military. He is currently serving a sentence of 396 months imprisonment. Mr. Tatar raises several ineffective assistance of counsel claims in his § 2255 motion; specifically: (1) failure to object to the jury charge when it reduced the burden of proof ("Claim I"); (2) failure to seek dismissal of Count 1 of the indictment (conspiracy to murder members of the United States military) ("Claim II"); (3) failure to object to a constructive amendment to the indictment ("Claim III"); (4) failure to allow him to testify and obstructing his right to present a defense ("Claim IV"); (5) failure of appellate counsel to raise Claims II and II on appeal ("Claim V"); and (6) failure of trial counsel to seek post-verdict to dismiss the remaining conspiracy offense in count one due to retroactive misjoinder and failure of appellate counsel to raise issue of retroactive misjoinder on appeal ("Claim VI"). Additionally, Mr. Tatar claims that sentencing enhancements found through

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judicial fact-finding were improperly used to increase his sentence ("Claim VII"). The government has filed an opposition that all of the claims should be denied on the merits. For the following reasons, the Court will deny relief on all of the claims Mr. Tatar raises in his amended § 2255 motion.


Shnewer, the Duka brothers, and Tatar are a group of young men who lived in New Jersey and developed an interest in violent jihad, particularly attacks against the United States military. Defendants, who had known each other since high school, came to the FBI's attention after it received a copy of a video that was brought to a Circuit City store in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey for copying. The video dated from January 2006 and depicted the five defendants and others at a firing range in the Pocono Mountains, shooting weapons and shouting "Allah Akbar!" and "jihad in the States."

Over the course of the next sixteen months, the FBI deployed two cooperating witnesses, Mahmoud Omar and Besnik Bakalli, to monitor defendants' activities. The evidence presented at trial showed that, between January 2006 and May 2007, defendants viewed and shared videos of violent jihadist activities, including beheadings, around the world; they viewed and shared videos of lectures advocating violent jihad against non-Muslims; they sought to acquire numerous weapons, including automatic firearms and rocket-propelled grenades; they returned to the Poconos, where they again engaged in shooting practice; they discussed plans to attack the United States military; they conducted research and surveillance on various potential targets for such an attack in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware; and they procured a map of the United States Army Base at Fort Dix to use in planning and coordinating such an attack.

With respect to the individual defendants, the evidence demonstrated the following:

Mohamad Shnewer is a naturalized American citizen who was born in Jordan. He admired and sought to emulate the "nineteen brothers," i.e., the September 11 hijackers, Osama bin Laden, and the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Shnewer openly discussed and planned attacks on military targets in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Along with Omar, the government informant, he staked out the United States Army Base

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at Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base, Lakehurst Naval Air Station, and the United States Army Base at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey; the United States Coast Guard Base in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Shnewer also considered attacking the federal government building at 6thand Arch Streets in Philadelphia and drove by the building to determine whether such an attack would be feasible. To accomplish an attack on these targets, Shnewer proposed deploying a gas tanker truck as a bomb, using roadside bombs or surface-to-air missiles, and spraying military targets with machinegun fire. He sought to acquire AK-47 machineguns from Omar to use in such an attack.

Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir Duka are brothers who were born in Albania. During the events that were the subject of the trial, they were in the United States illegally. In 2006 and 2007, the Dukas took at least two trips to the Poconos to train for jihad by firing weapons, attempting to buy automatic weapons, discussing jihad, and watching violent jihadist videos. The Dukas befriended government informant Bakalli, a fellow Albanian, and encouraged him to join them in avenging Muslims who had been oppressed in the United States and Israel. They viewed and praised a lecture, Constants on the Path to Jihad, by Anwar al-Awlaki, the prominent cleric and proponent of attacks against the United States military, and videos depicting attacks on American soldiers by violent jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere. In recorded conversations presented at trial, the Dukas described beheadings depicted in the videos as just punishment for traitors. The Dukas watched the beheading videos over and over again until they became inured to the spectacle. Dritan told Bakalli that, although at first he "couldn't take it," "[n]ow I see it and it's nothing, I do not care. I saw hundreds being beheaded." Similarly, Eljvir told Bakalli that the beheadings were difficult to watch at first, but that "[n]ow we can watch it no problem."

Like Shnewer, the Dukas sought to acquire firearms to further their plans. They could not acquire weapons lawfully because they were in the country illegally, so they turned to the black market. By January 2007, the three brothers told Bakalli they had acquired a shotgun, two semi-automatic rifles, and a pistol, and they continued to look for opportunities to buy machineguns.

Later that spring, Dritan Duka ordered nine fully automatic weapons - AK 47s and M-16s - from a contact of Omar in Baltimore. The FBI arranged a controlled transaction, and, on May 7, 2007, Dritan and Shain Duka went to Omar's apartment to

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retrieve their weapons. After handing Omar $1,400 in cash, Dritan and Shain examined and handled four fully automatic machineguns and three semiautomatic assault rifles. They asked Omar for garbage bags to conceal the weapons (so they would look like golf clubs) as they carried them out to the car. Before they could get there, however, federal and state law enforcement officers entered Omar's apartment and arrested them. The entire transaction was captured on video by equipment installed in Omar's apartment by the FBI and was shown to the jury at trial.

Serdar Tatar is a lawful permanent resident in the United States who was born in Turkey. Tatar appears in the video of defendants' January 2006 training trip to the Poconos. After extensive discussions with Omar about Shnewer's plan to attack Fort Dix, Tatar agreed to help by providing Omar with a map of Fort Dix to use in planning such an attack. Regarding the overall plan to attack Fort Dix, Tatar told Omar in a recorded conversation, "I'm in, honestly, I'm in."

All five defendants were arrested on May 7, 2007, after Dritan and Shain Duka completed the controlled firearm purchase from Omar.

United States v. Duka, 671 F.3d 329, 333-35 (3d Cir. 2011).

Relevant to this Opinion, Mr. Tatar was charged with one count of conspiracy to murder members of the United States military in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1117 ("Count 1") and one count of attempt to murder members of the United States military ("Count 2").1 Mr. Tatar (along with the Duka brothers and Shnewer) was found guilty of Count 1 of conspiracy to kill United States military personnel. However, Mr. Tatar (along with the Duka brothers and Shnewer) were found not guilty of Count 2 of attempting to kill United States military personnel. Mr. Tatar was sentenced to 396 months imprisonment (the Duka brothers and Shnewer received life sentences).

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the judgment of conviction as to Mr. Tatar. See Duka, 671 F.3d 329.

Mr. Tatar filed a pro se amended § 2255 motion raising the claims outlined in supra Part I. The government has filed a response in opposition and Mr. Tatar has filed a reply in support of his amended § 2255 motion.


A motion to vacate, set aside or correct a sentence of a person in federal custody pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 entitles a prisoner to relief if "the court finds ... [t]here has been such a denial or infringement of the constitutional rights of the prisoner as to render judgment vulnerable to collateral attack." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b). "In considering a motion to vacate a defendant's sentence, 'the court must accept the truth of the movant's factual allegations unless they are clearly frivolous based on the existing record.'" United States v. Booth, 432 F.3d 542, 545 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Gov't of Virgin Islands v. Forte, 865 F.2d 59, 62 (3d Cir. 1989)) (citing R. Governing § 2255 Cases R. 4(b)). A District Court "is required to hold an evidentiary hearing ' unless the motion and files and records of the case show conclusively that the movant is not entitled to relief.'" Id. (quoting Forte, 865 F.2d at 62). The Third Circuit has stated that this standard creates a '"reasonably low threshold for habeas petitioners to meet.'" Id. (quoting United States v. McCoy, 410 F.3d 124, 134 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Woodford, 267 F.3d 966, 973 (9th Cir. 2001))). Accordingly, this Court abuses its...

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