Prosecutorial missteps and questionable investigative practices may undermine the convictions in the first terror trial after the September 11, 2001 attacks, concludes the Detroit News. A News review of thousands of pages of documents and interviews with law enforcement experts found that the case was colored by an overly aggressive prosecution in an atmosphere of public demand for a terror crackdown.
Investigators repeatedly ignored rules intended to ensure a fair trial, producing a probe geared toward winning at any cost. The government went around the world to bolster seemingly benign evidence in an obvious case of document fraud.
The government says the defendants got a fair trial. The “misplaced complaints as to the misconduct of the government and the court are either not consistent with the actual evidence, are overstated, or simply not supported by the law,” prosecutors said in court papers. The two terror conspiracy convictions are under review by federal officials and could be overturned by U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen.
“The lesson of this case is how conscientious people who feel that they are trying to protect the country can make terrible mistakes,” said Robert Precht, an assistant dean at the University of Michigan and a defense attorney for one of the men in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “I most blame the win-at-all-costs atmosphere that (U.S. Attorney General John) Ashcroft has created.”
Among problems cited by the News:
* An ongoing court-ordered review has found the government withheld more than 100 documents from the defense, including CIA intelligence reports.
* The government’s key witness, Youssef Hmimssa, is a serial con man who was wanted for crimes in Europe and had lied to U.S. authorities before.
* Before the trial, the government deported at least two witnesses who challenged the prosecution’s case.
* In at least one file prosecutors handed over to defense lawyers, a page with information critical to the defense was missing, defense lawyers say.
* Violations of a court gag order by Ashcroft and government leaks raise concerns about whether the defendants got a fair trial.
In a follow-up story, the News recounts the case of career con man Youssef Hmimssa, a key witness in the terror case. Questions about Hmimssa continue to cloud the case, the News says. A senior investigator said an ongoing review of the government's case by a special prosecutor focuses largely on classified reports involving Hmimssa.