Should a defendant's or a juror's religious views be part of a court proceeding? Are Islamist views religious? Vanessa Blum of Legal Times takes up this sticky issue in "Putting Islam on the Stand." I summarized the trial she discusses back on April 26, 2005, when a verdict was reached:
Ali al-Timimi, 41, a Ph.D. in computational biology and a self-professed Islamic scholar whom prosecutors described as enjoying "rock star" status among his followers in Virginia, was convicted today on all ten counts against him, including soliciting others to levy war against the United States and inducing others to use firearms in violation of federal law. The firearms convictions require mandatory life imprisonment without parole. Al-Timimi became the tenth member of the "Virginia jihad network" to be convicted; two were acquitted.
Now, al-Timimi's lawyer, Edward MacMahon Jr., is demanding a new trial, on the grounds that Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg appealed to religious bigotry against Muslims.
Already in pretrial motions, Kromberg and MacMahon disputed whether prosecutors could tell jurors that al-Timimi had said that Muslims may lie to the enemy when at war. Kromberg held that Timimi's willingness to lie was not a religious belief but a political one. MacMahon cited a federal rule of evidence that prohibits lawyers from using witnesses' religious beliefs to undermine their credibility. Judge Leonie Brinkema of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled from the bench in favor of the government.
MacMahon bases his request for a new trial on what Kromberg said in his closing argument, especially his final words to the jury: "If you're a kafir, Timimi believes in time of war he's supposed to lie to you. Don't fall for it. Find him—find Sheik Ali Timimi—guilty as charged." Also, Kromberg told jurors not to believe a defense witness who had testified that Timimi never told followers that Muslims had an obligation to wage war against the United States. MacMahon argues in his motion for a new trial that Kromberg was telling the jury that "Muslims are religiously obligated to wage war against the United States, to lie, and to kill."
In a June 20 brief responding to MacMahon, Kromberg states that he never referred to Islam in general but only to Timimi's beliefs. "It is an insult to Muslims in America and around the world for Timimi to claim that the beliefs he . . . [holds] are shared by Muslims generally." Kromberg insists that Timimi's personal religious views are "directly relevant" to the case.
While such an argument may be unfairly prejudicial in a case involving a typical bank robbery, drug trafficking, or mail fraud, Timimi was charged with much different offenses. In light of the charges against Timimi, the government's arguments were directly relevant to his prosecution and fairly made.
This request for a new trial will likely be heard on July 13.
There is a further wrinkle to the al-Timimi case: the jury selection in this case required prospective jurors to reply to nearly a dozen questions related to religion, including their personal religious preference, the religion they were raised in, how often they attend religious services, if they know any Muslims, and if they are familiar with Islamic practices.
Comment: The legal track is another theater – and one of the better ones, actually – for figuring out exactly what is the relationship of radical Islam to Islam, of ideology to religion. As Blum points out,
The case illustrates the difficulty in prosecuting suspected terrorists who subscribe to a form of militant Islam, without airing tenets of the religion itself before a jury. And it raises the question of how far is too far when it comes to using a defendant's religious beliefs as evidence of criminal intent. The issue will likely continue to confront judges as more cases against accused terrorists come to trial.
(July 8, 2005)
July 12, 2005 update: The above argument did not convince Judge Brinkema, as she sentenced Ali al-Timimi to life in prison. Of particular note is that the defendant (like his Islamist soul-mate in Holland, Mohammed Bouyeri) does not recognize the validity of his country's legal system:
In an impassioned speech before the sentencing, Ali Timimi, a prominent Muslim spiritual leader, asserted his innocence, read the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and said his religious beliefs do not recognize "secular law."
Al-Timimi's own website carries his statement, including this line:
My claim of innocence is not because of any inherent misunderstanding on my part as to the nature of the crimes for which I was convicted nor is it because my Muslim belief recognizes sharia rather than secular law.