7:44:32 PMAl-Qaeda Translator Says Prosecutors Frightened Jury
Lawyers for a man sentenced to 17 1/2 years in prison for translating al-Qaeda materials on the Web argued to overturn the conviction, saying prosecutors improperly frightened the jury with images of the Sept. 11 attacks.
P. Sabin Willett, an attorney for Tarek Mehanna, told a U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston today that prosecution references to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York were "overwhelmingly prejudicial” to the jury.
Jurors saw 28 images of the towers’ collapse and heard mention of videos of five beheadings by Islamic radicals, while Osama Bin Laden, the deceased al-Qaeda leader, was brought up 17 times, he said.
"The purpose of the evidence was to frighten the jury and it worked,” Willett told the three-judge panel.
The judges said they would rule later.
U.S. District Judge George O’Toole imposed the sentence in April 2012 after Mehanna, 30, was convicted of conspiring to give material support to al-Qaeda. Prosecutors sought a 25-year sentence, saying the materials he translated from Arabic into English included a manual titled "39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Bruce Selya said that while each reference to terrorism may have been proper during the trial, the appeals court must weigh total effect of the references.
"Terrorism sparks emotions in all of us; it’s a horrible crime and it’s important we stick to the rules of evidence when it comes to speaking about it,” Selya said. "This is a hard case. We’ll try to be very careful in this case.”
The government alleged that Mehanna, a pharmacy-school graduate, traveled to Yemen in 2004 to seek training so he could kill American soldiers in Iraq. After failing to get the instruction, he edited and translated recruitment materials for al-Qaeda, the U.S. said.
Justice Department attorney Elizabeth Collery said today that e-mail evidence refuted the defendant’s argument he had gone to Yemen as a scholar.
"The government certainly has a right to show this defendant’s intent,” Selya said in reference to Mehanna’s trip to the Arab nation.
Mehanna’s lawyers, as well as groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also argued that government efforts to "prohibit unpopular expression” by Mehanna violate the U.S. Constitution’s right to free speech and warrant reversal of his conviction.
Prosecutors disputed that contention.
"The evidence amply established that Mehanna engaged in propaganda activities in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization,” the government said in its appeal brief. "Mehanna was not convicted for any activity protected by the First Amendment.”
His lawyers claimed in court filings that the judge incorrectly told the jury he could be convicted for political speech if it had been coordinated with al-Qaeda. They also said that the judge used the wrong guidelines in imposing the sentence.
Federal investigators have said that the Marathon suspects, who allegedly killed three people in the April 15 terrorist bombing, learned about making bombs from the online magazine Inspire, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda. They, like Mehanna, were identified by prosecutors as radical Islamists.
Mehanna, who wasn’t present at the oral arguments today, lived in Sudbury, Massachusetts, with his family. He earned a doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science where his father, Ahmed, an immigrant from Egypt, is a professor, according to court records.
Ahmed Mehanna told reporters after the hearing that he was optimistic about the appeal after hearing the judge’s comments.
"I feel good but I’ve lost faith in the justice system,” the father said.
The appeals case is U.S. v. Mehanna, 12-01461, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (Boston). The lower-court case is U.S. v. Mehanna, 1:09-cr-10017, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).
To contact the reporters on this story: Don Jeffrey in New York at email@example.com; Janelle Lawrence in federal court in Boston at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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