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Showing posts with label fifth amendment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fifth amendment. Show all posts

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Weaponization of Belief: Tarek Mehanna Guilty on 7 Terrorism Charges

Guilty on All Counts

Late last month, a federal jury in Boston, after only 10 hours of deliberations, found Tarek Mehanna guilty on all seven counts for which he had been charged. They included conspiracy to kill Americans abroad, lying to federal investigators and, most controversially, providing material support to a terrorist organization (Al Qaeda).

Two sets of acts proved central to the case against Mehanna. The first was a trip he took with another man to Yemen in 2004, allegedly to seek training at a terrorist camp. His companion continued on to Iraq and remains at large. The second was a series of documents and videos Mehanna translated from Arabic into English and posted to the internet. As most of these files were seen as serving propaganda purposes for Al Qaeda, they formed the basis for the "material support" charge.

Defense attorneys for Mehanna had requested that Judge O'Toole give the jury a special verdict form, so that the jurors would have to specify whether the elements for any charge were satisfied by the Yemen trip, the web postings, or both. The rationale for such a request was a recognition that no U.S. appellate court had yet ruled on the Constitutional question of whether speech alone could qualify as material support, as defined by the antiterrorism statute. Only by learning whether any particular conviction rested on the internet postings could the defense preserve this question for appeal. Judge O'Toole, however, failed to see the need for the special verdict form and allowed the jury to return a general verdict on all counts.

Retaliatory Prosecution?

Tarek Mehanna's brother, Tamir, was interviewed on WBUR (Boston's NPR affiliate) on the day following the verdict. In that interview, he paints a picture of his brother's development as an American and a Muslim quite at odds with what prosecutors told the jury. He remains convinced that the government only prosecuted his brother so aggressively because Tarek refused to become an informant for the justice department in 2004.

Many legal scholars have now weighed in on the First Amendment implications of Mehanna's conviction, suggesting that it has struck a devastating blow against free political speech in America. The verdict sends a message to those who would criticize our government that their words can, in fact, be used against them in a court of law.

I wonder, however, if the verdict has not sent an even more potent message regarding the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments. When it comes to issues of national security, if you assert your rights not to cooperate with an ongoing investigation, the consequences will be dire. Suspects have long been pressured into cooperating with the government in order to avoid particularly harsh treatment. Investigators and prosecutors regularly depend on informants and coconspirators to make their cases. This case, however, feels a bit different. The government really piled on here... and they won. I am not sure that federal authorities thought that Mehanna himself was particularly dangerous. They might have thought that a culture where dissidents feel free to blow off the Feds would be particularly dangerous.

Credibility can be Key

In many of my prior posts about this case, I identified major challenges facing the defense, including poor timing, archaic jury selection procedures, adverse evidentiary rulings and the emotional climate created by any reference to terrorism.

Against all of this, I was very impressed with the defense mounted by Mehanna's team. In particular, I thought they did an excellent job of reminding the jury at every turn that almost everything cited as evidence by the prosecution turned out to be spoken or written words. The First Amendment defense, which seemed rather far-fetched as the trial opened, gained traction as the case went along.

There proved to be one major problem. Mehanna's trip to Yemen, at a time when no sane person would go there other than to be in the middle of a war, was clearly not mere talk. It was a very concrete act of someone who was clearly trying to accomplish something more than he could at home. The defense explanation was that he was seeking further Islamic education. There was scant evidence to support this contention and it frankly didn't pass the sniff test (even if it were true).

The perceived need to shoehorn this event into the free-speech-based defense strategy probably did not serve Mehanna well. I have not heard or read interviews with any of the jurors yet, but I wonder if the implausibility of this particular defense hurt the defense team's credibility with respect to the rest of the charges. If jurors thought the defense was trying to snow them about the trip to Yemen, they likely became suspicious of the rest of the defense story.

Hindsight is 20-20 (or at least usually less myopic than the present), so it is easy to speculate about "what ifs". I am sure that Mr. Carney and his team did what they thought would be most effective for their client at the time, and I do not mean to suggest that I somehow know better. The post-game analysis, however, tends to speculate about how things might have gone differently. In that spirit, I do wonder what might have happened, had Mr. Mehanna essentially fallen on his sword with respect to the ill-fated trip to Yemen.

Rather than defending the trip as an educational venture, the defense might have admitted that the trip was a stupid idea of an immature and angry young man. They might have been able to spin the story, to suggest that finding himself in the Middle East opened Mehanna's eyes to the very real conflict in the region. He came home because he realized that violence in the name of God is wrong. This story does seem to dovetail a bit better with Mehanna's subsequent decision to take his fight to the web, rather than the battlefield.

It's always the cover-up

Americans are, as a rule, very forgiving people. I am often amazed at the transgressions we are willing to overlook. The one thing that we seem to have virtually no tolerance for, however, is anyone thinking they are bigger than the system, above the law, or not subject to the same rules as the rest of us.

Juries punish arrogance. Just ask Martha Stewart. Just ask Conrad Murray. Just ask Rod Blagojevich. Just ask Raj Rajarratman.When you get caught, throw yourself on the mercy of the court and jurors will treat you fairly. Act like you are smarter or tougher or better than everyone else and they will punish you.

It is for this reason that I am so concerned that the defense of Mehanna's trip to Yemen as a pilgrimage of Islamic learning came across as arrogant. It was borderline contemptuous of the jury. I worry that some of the jurors thought, "Just how gullible do you think we are?"

Alas, it will always be relegated to speculation what might have happened had the defense team taken a different tact with respect to this one particular act. Would the jury have been more sympathetic to the free speech defense of Mehanna's other activities? Would they have deliberated longer than 10 hours? We will never know.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Can Tarek Mehanna Take the Fifth... and the First?

The Protected Free Speech Defense

The terrorism trial of Tarek Mehanna has been going on in Federal District Court in Boston for about a month now. (Find my prior blog posts on the trial here.) Jay Carney, Jr., and the rest of the defense team, have built their defense to charges of supporting Al Qaeda around the First Amendment right to free speech. While the defendant might have said, written, posted, blogged and translated some items that most Americans would find repugnant, the Bill of Rights specifically protects the right of any American to do just that. The defense contends that none of these ideas were ever put into action and therefore can't constitute criminal conduct.

I will admit that, when the trial first started, I thought this defense was a long-shot. Surely the prosecution would present evidence of actual deeds that would puncture the credibility of the free speech defense. As the trial progressed, however, I was struck by just how little of the government's evidence went beyond texts, translations and conversations. Maybe they could pull off this defense, after all.

There is the sticky situation of Mehanna's trip to Yemen, allegedly to receive terrorist training. The defense that he was simply seeking to further his religious studies rings quite hollow. There doesn't seem to be much more than this, though, in the "smoking gun" department. It seems as if the authorities only managed to pulled off of his computer text files and emails. That is, they have a seemingly endless  supply of hateful and desperate speech... but it's still all speech.

Was the Speech Dangerous?

The protections of speech, even political speech, do have their limits. If the speech was intended to and/or could reasonably be expected to incite violence, the state interest in preventing that violence trumps the right to the speech. While the burden is on the prosecution to prove that the speech in this case was too dangerous to permit, the true burden is not so cut-and-dried. The easy solution for the jury is to accept the prosecution's assertion that this kind of vitriolic America-bashing is dangerous and should not be permitted. As such, it is incumbent upon the defense to reassure the jurors that there is no link between this kind of speech and an actual threat to their lives, their safety and their way of life.

That is, the defense needs the jurors to conclude that this speech is not dangerous. The defense needs the jurors to understand that Tarek Mehanna can believe everything he wrote and said and still not be a threat.

Should the Defendant Take the Stand?

This brings us to the very tricky question of whether Tarek Mehanna should take the stand in his own defense. The last time I wrote about this question, it was in the context of the Edward Fleury trial (Fleury had organized a gun show at which a young boy had accidentally shot himself to death with an Uzi submachine gun). There is an added twist to this strategic decision in the Mehanna trial. The whole defense is premised on the proposition that nothing Mehanna has said is dangerous. He need not renounce any of his writings because the Constitution protects his right to express his views. Most importantly, those views did not spur either Mehanna or his compatriots to violence. That is, the defense needs the jury to conclude that Mehanna's speech is innocuous.

While a jury is always instructed not to conclude anything about a defendant's guilt or innocence from his choice not to testify, we know from ample empirical research that jurors always draw inferences from this decision. It will be particularly difficult for jurors in this case to ignore a decision by Mehanna's defense team to have him not testify in his own defense. How is a juror to conclude that Mehanna's speech is harmless if he is not willing to take the stand and defend that speech himself? If Mehanna is afraid of the consequences of speaking his views in open court, perhaps the jurors have reason to fear that speech, too.

So, the defense confronts a very real dilemma. Can the defendant simultaneously assert his FIrst Amendment right to free speech and his Fifth Amendment right not to speak at all?

According to media sources, the defense is scheduled to rest its case later this week. That suggests to me that Mehanna will not testify in his own defense. Such a choice is a gamble in this case -- perhaps more so than in a typical case -- but I can certainly understand the defense team going in that direction. Perhaps it is a better bet that jurors will properly internalize the burden of proof on the government here than that Mr. Mehanna can avoid saying something incriminating on the stand under cross-examination. The remainder of the case certainly holds its share of suspense.