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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Ferdaus Arrest complicates Mehanna trial

When did Massachusetts move from the Northeast to the Middle East?
Rezwan Ferdaus

Massachusetts residents awoke last week to the disturbing news that yet another resident of the Commonwealth had been arrested for Al Qaeda inspired terrorist activity. Rezwan Ferdaus is alleged to have concocted an elaborate plot to fly drone airplanes, loaded with explosives, into the U.S. Capitol, and then have snipers located nearby to shoot officials fleeing the explosions. Mr. Ferdaus is an American citizen with an engineering degree from Northeastern University, located right in the heart of Boston. 

Tarek Mehanna
It will be several years before Mr. Ferdaus is tried for his alleged crimes. That does not mean, however, that the effects of his arrest won't be felt around here much sooner. Tarek Mehanna, whose case I have discussed in earlier blog posts (09/03/11 post, 11/03/09 post), was originally scheduled to go on trial for similar terrorist planning activities on Monday of this week, only a few days after Ferdaus was arrested. Mehanna's trial has now been postponed until later this month, but the shock of Ferdaus' audacious plan will undoubtedly still be fresh in the minds of Massachusetts jurors.

As I have discussed in the previous posts about the Mehanna case, Terror Management Theory (TMT) has a lot to say about how jurors react to evidence and make decisions in trials involving allegations of terrorism. The constant reminders of death and mortal vulnerability triggers fear-induced intensification of one's commitment to one's world view. Jurors will feel threatened and they will respond by vigorously defending their values and chosen way of life against that perceived threat. Logic and common sense  often give way to emotional reactions and the need to feel safer at any cost.

It was going to be very, very hard for Mehanna to receive a fair trial in Massachusetts anyway. The 10th anniversary of 9/11 was very recent. Massachusetts residents have not forgotten that the planes that hit the twin towers originated here and carried many friends and loved ones. The default jury selection rules in Federal District Court do not provide many opportunities for lawyers to identify those jurors most likely to have their decision-making hijacked by emotional concerns.

Now, along comes another "home-grown terrorist." Undoubtedly, jurors will be more terrified than ever and want, more than anything else, to make it all stop -- to regain their safety and security. The emotionally-driven temptation to throw the book at Mehanna may prove too much to bear.

I gave a talk to the Harvard Law School Student Association of Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) last month, where I discussed Terror Management Theory, and its application to the Mehanna case. (You can view my slides here.) A student asked whether I was at all optimistic that some of the defense strategies I suggested in my talk might actually help Mehanna get a fair trial. I couldn't express much optimism at the time and I am afraid that recent developments only make it more difficult for him to get a fair trial here in the new hotbed of domestic terrorism.

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