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Attorneys for New Jersey men say Boston bombing influenced sentences

By David Jones

NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Two New Jersey men convicted of conspiring to join an al Qaeda-linked militant group have appealed their sentences, arguing that prosecutors were unduly influenced by the Boston Marathon bombing, one of their attorneys said on Tuesday.

Mohamed Alessa, 23, and Carlos Almonte, 27, were sentenced to 22 years and 20 years respectively in prison on April 15, just after two bombs exploded at the iconic race in Boston.

The two men had pleaded guilty to charges they conspired to join the al-Shabaab movement in Somalia, a group linked to al Qaeda and listed as a terrorist organization by United States.

Prosecutors abruptly changed their final arguments at the men's sentencing hearing after being handed a note by a federal agent, Stanley Cohen, an attorney for Alessa, said on Tuesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stanley Kogan was discussing the characteristics of the two men but after another prosecutor was handed a note, the two conferred and Kogan shifted to talking about the potential impact of an attack on U.S. soil, they said.

"Literally at the very moment that two young men are about to be sentenced for an international terrorism case, there is a domestic act going on at the very same moment," Stanley Cohen, an attorney for Alessa, said on Tuesday.

In the appeal, filed on Monday, Cohen and Almonte's attorney James Patton wrote that "the government's sudden and inappropriate departure into an invocation of domestic carnage must be viewed in light of the bombings in Boston, minutes before the precipitate change in its argument."

Cohen said neither the defense nor prosecutors had been aware of the attack that day ahead of the court hearing and that he would have sought a two-week adjournment if he had known.

U.S. District Court Judge Dickinson Debevoise said in a letter to both sides in the case last week that "the Boston events had nothing to do with the sentence I imposed."

Alessa and Almonte were arrested in June 2010 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport as they were trying to board flights to Egypt, authorities said.

The two men had traveled to Jordan in 2007 to inquire about joining an al Qaeda-affiliated group, saved thousands of dollars, practiced tactical maneuvers with paintball guns and acquired knives and night vision equipment, federal prosecutors said.

They bought airline tickets to Egypt with the intent of traveling on to join the group in Somalia, prosecutors said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation got a tip about the two men in 2006, and their conversations were secretly recorded by the New York Police Department, prosecutors said.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)

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