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Did feds bully arson suspect into taking 30-year prison sentence?

The case against Jamal Mustafa Shehadeh already was strange enough: He was accused of being a serial arsonist who conspired with the father of French train hero Spencer Stone, then took a guilty plea in federal court in a hastily arranged Saturday night hearing.

Now, Shehadeh, 59, is claiming prosecutors threatened him into accepting the guilty plea he entered and is asking U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. to set aside his 30-year prison sentence.

“The district court should examined(sic) more carefully the voluntariness of the plea,” Shehadeh wrote in a document filed Wednesday in federal court in Sacramento. “The fact that the plea agreement was rushed in, and never been discussed in detail due to the fact Jamal had blacked out and was taken to medical for possibility of stroke.

“The fact that the court was on Saturday have intensify(sic) the fear that Jamal was under.”

Shehadeh wrote that prosecutors threatened to prosecute his family members and that he accepted the plea “under duress.”

Shehadeh, who is serving his sentence at a federal prison in Lompoc, claimed he called three of his attorneys after the sentencing seeking to have the sentence set aside, but that “counsel have refused to act on Jamal's request.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento declined to comment, saying prosecutors “will respond at an appropriate time with a filing with the court.” Shehadeh’s attorney, assistant federal defender Matthew Bockman, declined to comment Thursday.

There is nothing unusual about defendants trying to back out of plea deals they have accepted. Former Roseville financial adviser Lee Loomis accepted a guilty plea in 2016, then spent two years trying to back out of it before he was sentenced to 12 years in February.

Courts go to great lengths to ensure such plea deals are voluntary, and the agreement Shehadeh signed on Feb. 9 notes that “no one has threatened or forced me in any way to enter this plea agreement.”

The deal also included language in which the government agreed not to prosecute two individuals Shehadeh identified as family members, although a portion of the plea agreement involving that issue was ordered sealed in the interest of “protecting the privacy interests” of two other individuals.

The claims Shehadeh makes add to the intrigue of the case and the decision to hold a Saturday night hearing to accept the plea.

Prosecutors have described the case as a massive arson-for-profit scheme that resulted in numerous fires being set at Sacramento businesses, $1.5 million in payouts, classified government information and suggestions in court filings that Shehadeh was tied to the 1996 slaying of a woman who had just moved to Sacramento from China.

Two co-defendants in the case still face trial in the case, including Brian Stone, a former lawyer whose son, Spencer, gained fame for his heroics in August 2015 when he and two friends thwarted a terror attack on a Paris-bound train. The three friends later starred in the Clint Eastwood film “The 15:17 to Paris.

Spencer Stone told The Bee in 2016 that he had not known “for a long time” what his father does and declined further comment.

Stone, 59, of Elk Grove, faces wire and mail fraud charges and has a trial date set for Monday. Another defendant, Shehadeh relative Saber Shehadeh, has a May 14 trial date.

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