Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino, lead prosecutor in the first terror trial in the wake of 9/11, would like to take a trip abroad to celebrate last week’s conviction of two of four defendants on terror charges.
He traveled to Turkey and Jordan when preparing for trial. But he won’t go anywhere soon. His next trial is set for July. It’s the perjury trial of Chris Webber, the former star Michigan basketball player who now plays for the Sacramento Kings.
Convertino’s penchant for cases that make national headlines fuels speculation that he has political ambitions and perhaps aspires to be appointed a federal judge or to run for Congress.
“That’s comical. I couldn’t get my kids to vote for me,” says Convertino, who has five children. He jokes that he would like to be Italy’s prime minister.
Joking isn’t something that one encounters much talking to participants in the aftermath of the six-week terror trial that drew national attention. In the aftermath are changed lives, complaints and counter-complaints, legal questions and appeals that could be before the courts for years.
Throughout the trial, the defense complained that the government was not forthcoming with witnesses and evidence.
“I’ve never spent this much time complaining about the government hiding evidence,” says William Swor, who represented Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, one of the two men convicted of terror charges.
“I’ve been trying cases for 29 years, well over 300 trials, and there has never been a trial like this for me,” says attorney Jim Thomas, who was court-appointed to represent Ahmed Hannan.
Thomas, Swor and other defense lawyers were restricted from speaking by a gag order during the six-week trial, which resulted in the June 3 conviction of Elmardoudi and Karim Koubriti for providing material support to terrorists and for possessing false documents; they face up to 20 and 10 years in prison, respectively. Hannan was convicted of document fraud and faces up to five years in prison. A fourth defendant, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, was acquitted of all charges.
Lawyers for Elmardoudi and Koubriti say they’ll appeal the convictions.
Swor believes the jury’s verdict made a mockery of the government’s theory that the four were working together; he plans to appeal Elmardoudi’s conviction.
“The verdict makes no sense. It looks to me like a compromise,” says Swor, suggesting that the jury felt pressure to convict at least some of the defendants.
When the trial concluded, three jurors spoke to the media under the judge’s supervision. They did not provide their names. The jurors said that current events played no role in their verdict.
Although only two of the four defendants were convicted of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, Attorney General John Ashcroft immediately claimed victory.
“Today’s verdict reaffirms our commitment to pursuing aggressively the evidence wherever it may lead,” he said in a written statement. Convertino says the jury convicted the alleged cell leader, Elmardoudi, and Koubriti, who he says was “the most dangerous” of the four.
But how significant are those convictions?
“My view is that the Justice Department is straining to show the United States that it is doing something here,” says Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland Law School professor and the director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security. “We may have found out that we have two bad people here, but they are not at the heart of our problems.”
Greenberger says terror cases are difficult to prosecute.
“They’ve got to come up with evidence,” he says. “The evidence unearthed in the Detroit trial, even for those who were found guilty, was not earth-shattering.”
The fact that the jury acquitted Hannan and Ali-Haimoud of terror charges “means that juries are going to handle these cases on a case-by-case basis, fact-by-fact basis,” says Greenberger. “There was a lot of speculation that juries would be overwhelmed by the sheer mention of terrorism or terror itself.”
Neal Bush, a jury consultant with 20 years experience, was hired by the defense. He says he advised the defense to pick jurors unlikely to simply accept the government’s accusations.
“And that is often African-American women,” says Bush.
The jury pool consisted of 220 people. The final 12 were six African-American women, a Latino woman, two white men and three white women. Bush says that it is unusual to have so many minorities serving in the Detroit federal district, which comprises several predominantly white counties.
He says the split verdict indicates that the government did not completely sway the jurors. As for the convictions, Bush suspects that the jury was influenced by 9/11 and the Iraq war, which began during jury selection.
To elucidate his point about alleged misconduct, Swor cites the FBI interviews of a key witness, Brahim Sidi, who lived with the government’s star witness, Youssef Hmimssa, a self-proclaimed “scam artist” who avoided terrorism charges by cooperating with the government. Hmimssa created and sold fraudulent identification documents. Sidi helped him. Hmimissa also lived with three of the defendants in Detroit. He was arrested in November 2001, and, months later, accused them of being terrorists. The government’s case was built largely around Hmimssa.
Sidi allegedly told FBI agents that Hmimssa was angry with the defendants and wanted to get even with them because they stole passports from him. Sidi’s accusation supported the defense’s theory that Hmimssa sought revenge by falsely accusing the defendants of being terrorists.
But the FBI reports involving Sidi were not turned over until weeks into the trial, says Swor. Sidi pleaded guilty to possessing false documents and was deported months before the trial began.
“I never had a case where the government deported a witness before trial,” Swor says.
Convertino dismisses the complaints, saying, “It’s the same mantra by most of the defense attorneys in the cases they have with the government.”
He says he provided defense attorneys with a list of witnesses in advance of the trial. Witnesses who were afraid to have their names revealed were disclosed to the judge, says Convertino. He also has complaints of his own. He claims that the defense gave him only a few minutes’ notice before one of its witness took the stand.
“So when we hear accusations of prosecutorial misconduct, it’s infuriating,” says Convertino.
The most contentious issue — mentioned to the jury repeatedly — was how interviews with Hmimssa were conducted. According to the defense, Convertino instructed FBI agents not to take notes during the first 30 hours that Hmimssa was interviewed. The defense attorneys say those notes might have raised doubts about Hmimssa’s credibility.
Convertino says he acted properly, even instructing the jury during his closing remarks to acquit each defendant if they felt he tried to manipulate Hmimssa’s testimony.
In the end, the dispute over Hmimssa’s testimony may not have mattered much. The jurors who spoke to the media said that they believed some of what Hmimssa said, but did not give much “weight” to his testimony.
“He said himself he was a crook, and we believed him,” said the jury forewoman.
Some trial watchers speculated that Convertino was under extraordinary pressure from the U.S. Justice Department in the case. Joseph Capone, an attorney with Justice’s counterterrorism section in Washington, D.C., attended the trial and took notes. Capone says he was there as a “liaison,” to help with the case and provide support, which is routine. He denies that he was there to keep an eye on Convertino.
“It’s not about pressure,” says Capone. “It’s not the Department of Justice imposing its will on local prosecutors.”
Convertino agrees. “The only pressure on me was the pressure I put on myself,” he says.
Convertino has been a federal prosecutor since 1989 and has tried more than 50 cases. What made this one unique, he says, is that he was simultaneously working on the terror and fraud charges.
“There were not enough hours in the day,” says Convertino, who initially had little help.
Assisting him from the beginning was Mike Thomas, who headed the raid on the Detroit apartment. FBI agents were looking for a Kuwaiti man who was on the terrorist watch list. They instead found three men at home: Ali-Haimoud, Koubriti and Hannan. The agents also found false documents, a day planner notebook (that allegedly contained sketches of a U.S. air base in Turkey and a military hospital in Jordan) and two badges from the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, where Koubriti and Hannan had recently worked until they were fired.
“It was extremely suspicious,” says Convertino. “I was convinced there was more than a false document case.”
In time, more evidence was found and the three men were also charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists; a former roommate, Elmardoudi, was arrested in North Carolina on similar charges.
A handful of other officials also helped prosecute the men. Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Corbett joined the small team about two months before the trial began. Also on hand was Ana Bruni, a paralegal Convertino has worked with for three years. He says he couldn’t have prosecuted the case without her “organizational genius” at handling the thousands of documents in the case. She credits Convertino and others who “worked around the clock.”
Convertino, whose wife is part-Lebanese, previously was not unfamiliar with Middle-Eastern culture. But with the trial looming, he immersed himself in Islamic literature, since he was accusing the defendants of belonging to an extremist sect.
“I probably expanded my library by a hundred books and depleted my income by thousands of dollars,” says Convertino, who also attended seminars and attempted to learn Arabic, which he still hopes to master.
He says his kids “were essentially fatherless” during the trial. Despite the long hours, he says his job suits him.
When studying at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Convertino decided to practice criminal law. A professor suggested that he take a job at the public defender’s office.
“I loved it,” he says. But he felt that being a prosecutor was more fitting.
“I’m confident I’m doing the right thing when I go into court,” says Convertino.
Bruni expressed the prosecution team’s sense of victory at the trial’s end: “It was a long, hard road, but it was worth it. Putting these guys away was worth it.”
Thomas, Hannan’s attorney, says the government made the case a “monumental task,” and had field officers in every city involved at their disposal.
The FBI interviewed his client’s employers, co-workers, friends, neighbors and a librarian in Canton, Ohio, where he briefly lived, says Thomas.
“I don’t want to imply that we didn’t have resources,” he says.
U.S. District Court Judge Gerald E. Rosen, who presided over the case, approved additional staff, as well as payment for expert witnesses costing as much as $300 an hour. The only expenditure Rosen denied the defense was $40,000 to fly U.S. marshals to and from Morocco to transport defendant Koubriti’s sister; Rosen had her testify by phone.
“We have been eating and sleeping this case,” says Swor, who was responsible for finding expert witnesses. Thomas handled the medical records regarding the deceased mentally ill Yemeni, Ali Mohammed Ahmed, who owned the day planner containing the alleged military sketches.
The jurors who spoke to the media didn’t explain why they found Ali-Haimoud not guilty of all charges. The Algerian, who turns 23 next month, sits on the living room floor of his mother’s west side Detroit home. He looks exhausted.
He has spent most of his first days of freedom talking to reporters and visiting a local mosque. He also has been deluged with calls from friends and family, but his release from federal custody is bittersweet.
“I’m not happy 100 percent,” he says.
When the verdict was announced, Ali-Haimoud wept for his fellow defendants, he says.
He suspects that the jurors felt pressure to convict the defendants. Despite this, he says that he believes in the American justice system. He is especially grateful to his attorney, Robert Morgan, who was like a “father” to him. Morgan declined to comment.
Ali-Haimoud’s mother, Meriem Ladjadj, gave a Koran to Morgan and the other attorneys to thank them for their work.
Ali-Haimoud, who may face deportation, wants to stay in the United States to get an education and a job, but he has some trepidation. He fears that people will look askance at him.
“They maybe say, ‘He’s a terrorist, he just got lucky.’”
Ali-Haimoud came to the United States from Algeria in 1999 to visit his mother, whom he had not seen since he was 5. Ladjadj, who earned a doctorate in physics in France, came to the States in 1983 for a job. Ali-Haimoud, who had grown up with an aunt, lived with his mom for about 18 months, but she kicked him out over a disagreement. She wanted to support him so he could attend college full-time. Ali-Haimoud wanted to work while he went to school. Ali-Haimoud moved in with Koubriti and Hannan, whom he met at a Dearborn restaurant. He says he moved into their Dearborn apartment in July 2001 and moved with them to the Detroit apartment where they were arrested six days after 9/11. Ali-Haimoud was released about a month later. But he was arrested again in April 2002.
At trial, his attorney said that Ali-Haimoud is a devout Muslim who would sometimes get in trouble for praying at work. The government said that he is a religious zealot who spoke of jihad.
Ali-Haimoud’s name was on a box that contained 105 audiocassettes that were found at the Detroit apartment. The government said the tapes contained lectures in Arabic that advocated violence against Christians, Jews and non-practicing Muslims. The defense said they were lectures about how to be a good Muslim.
Ali-Haimoud would not say whether the tapes belonged to him. His attorney advised him not to talk in detail about the evidence, since the other defendants are appealing their convictions.
His mother, who sat through most of the trial, says she purchased copies of the tapes so she could listen for herself. She claims that they contain mainstream Islamic teachings and is proud that they were found in her son’s apartment. (She also says she was so distracted by her son’s arrest that she lost her job at Lewis College of Business, which made buying $100 worth of tapes an added hardship.)
But Ladjadj faults herself for Ali-Haimoud’s arrest. Had she not ousted him, things would have been different.
“I feel so much guilt,” she says. She describes watching the trial as a “nightmare.”
Now, she says, “I feel the sun will be shining for us for the rest of our lives.”
“Not just for us, but for the other defendants,” adds Ali-Haimoud, who is confident that they will be vindicated on appeal.
He wishes that he could have testified at the trial. “We all wanted to go on the witness stand,” he says. “I would tell them everything I know.”
But until appeals conclude, which could take years, he will not share everything he knows.
The trial is over, but there are lingering issues, including how long Hmimssa will spend in prison. He consented to testify against the others in exchange for the possibility of a shortened sentence. Convertino says he plans to ask for a reduced sentence, which the judge must approve. Hmimssa was sentenced to 37 to 46 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to credit card and document fraud in three states. It may be months before a sentence-reduction hearing is scheduled, says Convertino.
It is not clear whether Hmimssa, who entered the country illegally, will be allowed to stay in the States after his prison release. Hmimssa’s attorney, Stephen Rabaut, did not return phone calls.
Another question is whether U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft will be held accountable for violating the court-issued gag order, which prohibited the government, defense attorneys and their witnesses from talking to the media during the trial. At an April press conference in Washington, D.C., Ashcroft mentioned several terrorist-related cases, including the trial in Detroit. Ashcroft specifically spoke about Hmimssa’s testimony.
“Such cooperation is a critical tool in our war against terrorism,” said Ashcroft.
“It was a low blow. I think he has to explain himself,” says Thomas, who believes Ashcroft tried to bolster Hmimssa’s credibility. Thomas plans to ask Rosen to review the issue.
If he does, Rosen has to decide what penalty, if any, Ashcroft will pay.
Thomas, who represents Hannan, also plans to ask Rosen to sentence his client to time served. Hannan, faces up to five years in prison. But Thomas says the sentencing guidelines could provide for a maximum of six months for the fraud conviction. Hannan has been in custody for 20 months.
Rosen ruled last week that Hannan will not be released on bond while he awaits sentencing, which is months away.
Another key unanswered question is how much time will be added to the sentence of Omar Shishani, who testified on behalf of the defense. Shishani, who pleaded guilty to having $12 million in bogus cashier’s checks, testified that he met Hmimssa in a federal detention facility and that Hmimssa told him that he didn’t know whether the defendants were terrorists.
Shishani’s attorney, Corbett Edge O’Meara, says the U.S. attorney promised him a reduced sentence in exchange for his plea and also said that he would not be penalized for testifying for the defense in the terror trial. But O’Meara says that the government rescinded on the deal when Shishani refused to submit to a polygraph. He may face up to 10 years in prison, instead of possible probation; his sentencing is scheduled for August.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at email@example.com