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A law enforcement and prosecution point of view

Reader comment on item: Denying [Islamist] Terrorism

Submitted by J. Keen Holland (United States), Feb 8, 2005 at 15:46

While it is inexcusable for those charged with tracking the Islamist threat to the West to refuse to admit that many obvious acts of Islamic-motivated terror are what they are, we need to keep in mind that the reporting of individual incidents as they develop is strongly influenced by the perspective of police and prosecutors.

From the viewpoint of criminal investigators and prosecuting attorneys, recognizing a connection to Islamist ideology may be a useful investigative tool. But, it is often not useful to introduce such connections at trial. Where a case can be made on solid physical evidence and reliable eyewitness testimony, evidence of motive is generally unnecessary and may just muddy the water by giving the defense a realively weak point to attack which taints the whole of the prosecution case.

The mantra of "means, motive and opportunity" that many of us have picked up from detective fiction really applies to circumstantial cases. Where the defendant is not readily tied to the crime by physical evidence and/or eyewitness testimony, motive becomes a crucial factor in proving guilt. But even here, the last thing a prosecutor wants to do is start a theological debate in the courtroom.

Judges, too, are rightly sensitive to the objection that evidence of the defendant's religious views may be prejudicial without being probative. That is, it is not proper to introduce evidence that merely paints the defendant as a bad person but which does not directly address the issue whether this defendant committed this crime. When the defense raises the issue of the defendant's character ("He's a good boy who wouldn't do such a thing."), however, such evidence of prejudice or prior bad acts may be admissable in rebuttal.

The same sort of considerations have for years been taught to police and prosecutors handling Satanic ritual and cult abuse cases. Stick to proving the elements of the crime and keep the case as simple as possible. Don't give the defense an opportunity to portray the case as a "witch hunt."

Since most press attention is focused on the trial phase, there is a tendency for coverage to downplay the religious angle and with no official sources to quote, even anonymously, about the terrorist implications, that angle will be given short shrift. Add to this the political sensitivity of prosecutors and the fact that the defense will try to fit the public perception of the case into the paradigm of oppressed and misunderstood minority being victimized by powerful government and social forces. This is how the filtering of information works.

We need to recognize this phenomenon and insist that, at least after trial, the responsible government agencies label such acts for what they are - Islamist-inspired terrorism.
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