Ten prospective jurors dismissed Monday from the federal trial of three Somali-American men accused of plotting to join ISIL were let go because they told the judge they could not be impartial in the case.
The opening day of the trial ended with U.S. District Judge Michael Davis still questioning the last few of the first group of 50 potential jurors, or just half of the jury pool. Before recessing, Davis said he expected to have a jury by late-afternoon Tuesday and that opening statements would not begin until Wednesday.
Remarks from 10 of the 29 people dismissed Monday underscored the difficult task ahead in selecting a jury for a rare terrorism trial garnering international attention.
“When I first walked in, I already had the mind-set of them being guilty,” one woman told Davis.
Another quickly followed: “To be honest, I’m kind of uncomfortable even being in the room with them.”
Abdirahman Daud, 22; Mohamed Farah, 22, and Guled Omar, 21, are each accused of conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and to commit murder outside the United States on behalf of the group. The latter charge, the most serious, carries the possibility of life in prison. They were arrested and charged last year as part of an intensive FBI investigation that resulted in charges against 10 young Somali-American friends — six of whom have pleaded guilty, while another successfully made it to Syria to join ISIL.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have yet to begin their own questioning of possible jurors. But Davis wasted little time getting at the heart of the case when he addressed the group Monday afternoon.
“It’s terrorism. And everyone’s heard of that and everyone has certain thoughts about that,” Davis said. “I need to know how you feel. This may not be the case for you to sit on.”
A matter of trust
The day began with a tense scene as Davis considered a late motion to withdraw filed by Farah’s attorney, Murad Mohammad, who cited a deep rift between the two. Mohammad said there had been a breakdown in communication and that Farah had refused to work with him to prepare for trial. Mohammad also said Farah refused to sign paperwork that could have qualified Mohammad for government money because he thought it would compromise his attorney’s allegiance to him, according to an order filed Monday.
Farah shook his head as Mohammad told Davis he still believed he could communicate with his client. Earlier Monday, Farah told Davis that Mohammad had pressured him to plead guilty, saying his chances at trial were not good. “I swear to the court, he said Judge Davis will F you if you don’t agree to plead to the conspiracy to commit murder charge,” Farah said.
But Davis reviewed a transcript of an April 1 hearing in which Farah’s other attorney, P. Chinedu Nwaneri, withdrew. During that hearing, Farah had assured Davis that he was “100 percent” confident in Mohammad.
Farah also said Monday that Mohammad did not share all of the evidence in the case with him, but Mohammad said it was Farah who declined offers to review evidence.
Davis eventually denied the motion from the attorney, who later told him he was still prepared to go to trial. “While [Mohammad] and [Farah] often disagree as to legal strategy, the record demonstrates that communication has not completely broken down and that [Mohammad] has had unfettered access to [Farah] for purposes of trial preparation,” Davis wrote in his order.
In a stark contrast with Daud and Omar, who each appeared in suits, Farah was still wearing his orange jail-issued T-shirt and pants when he first appeared in court Monday.
During a break, Ayan Farah, Mohamed’s mother, said, “I feel very sad.” When asked if she had any hope for the trial, she shook her head and pointed to the sky. “Only God … and Judge Davis,” she said.
Before breaking for lunch, Davis asked Mohammad about Farah’s attire, and the attorney said Farah’s family had refused to provide clothing. Mohammad said he brought one of his own suits, which didn’t fit Farah, so he sent someone to purchase clothing before jury selection. Later, back in the courtroom, Farah sported an untucked light-colored dress shirt.
“It’s not fair,” said Abdihamid Farah Yusuf, the defendant’s father, earlier. “All we ask is for my son to get a [fair trial] and he’s not getting one. I’m nervous. I’m kind of crazy right now. Mohamed doesn’t have a lawyer.”
Half of the state’s largest federal courtroom was filled with families of the defendants, community members and media, while the other half was dedicated to the jury pool. Interest in attending the trial prompted Davis to pre-emptively order overflow seating in another courtroom.
A small group of civil liberties advocates also showed up outside the courthouse Monday morning, carrying signs that read, “Free Our Sons” and “Free Our Entrapped Youth,” and the defendants’ mothers gathered outside the building at the end of the day to appeal for a diverse jury.
“They don’t know who we are,” said Farhiyo Mohamed, a stepsister whom Daud has long considered as a mother. “We are American. We are law-abiding. Hopefully they will get to know us.”