Top row, left to right: Attorneys JaneAnne Murray, Jon Hopeman, Andy Birrell and Glenn Bruder
Bottom row, left to right: Attorneys Paul Engh, Patrick Nwaneri and Bruce Nester
Trials for the seven Somali teens arrested for attempting to join ISIS are scheduled to begin in September. The suspects could spend years in prison if convicted. Defense attorneys have said little outside of court, but one thing is certain: The deck is stacked in favor of the prosecutor.
When Reverend Al Sharpton eulogized the late defense attorney Jonnie Cochran, he told mourners: “With all due respect to you, Brother Simpson, when we heard about the acquittal, we weren't clapping for O.J., we were clapping for Johnnie. We were clapping because for decades our brothers, our cousins, our uncles had to stand in the well with no one to stand up for them. And finally a black man came and said, ‘If it don't fit you must acquit,’”
Sharpton went on. "Johnnie Cochran was to this era what Thurgood Marshall was to the era before."
Sharpton was making a broader point about the American judicial system. The difference between walking free and serving lengthy prison sentences depends largely on the rigor of the defense.
And of course, quality of defense is often tied to wealth or lack thereof. O.J. Simpson was enormously wealthy.
The seven Somali-American teenagers are standing in a deep well alone. The current political atmosphere in America makes it nearly impossible to defend charges of conspiracy to provide “material support” to a designated terrorist organization. The defendants’ identities only deepen the well. The combination of being black, Muslim and immigrant amounts to three strikes and you’re out in post-September 11 America.
These teenagers and their immigrant families are not wealthy. In addition to the most serious charge of conspiracy, two of the defendants are charged with financial fraud by resorting to withdrawals from their college financial aid funds to allegedly finance their travel plans. This underscores the point: The defendants can’t afford a Cochran-style defense.
When defendants are not able to afford attorneys, the government provides a public defender. The problem is, the federal public defender system is plagued by chronic budget shortfalls, including a $52 million in 2013.
The federal public defender system is augmented by “panel” attorneys under the Criminal Justice Act (CJA). “Panel” attorneys are lawyers in private practice who participate, on occasion, in the public defender system. Cases are assigned to them by federal judges and magistrates. “Panel” attorneys are limited to bill $120/hour or a maximum of $10,000 per case. Approval is required for any expense above this limit.
The seven defense attorneys representing the Somali teenagers declined requests for comment. But information in the public domain indicates they are good lawyers specializing in white-collar crime. Here is a brief background on each attorney:
JaneAnne Murray splits time between teaching law at the University of Minnesota and private practice. According to Super Lawyers Magazine, Murray handles white-collar crime cases 70 percent of the time and other criminal defense cases 30 percent. In 2010, Murray represented Wesam El-Hanafi, a New York man who pleaded guilty to aiding Al-Qaida and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She is now representing 19-year-old Hamza Ahmed.
Jon Hopeman is a trail lawyer with Felhaber and Larson specializing in white-color crimes. Super Lawyers says he handles white-color crime cases 70 percent of the time and appellate cases 20 percent. Hopeman was the lead defense attorney for Tom Petters. Hopeman previously represented Mahamud Said Omar, a Minneapolis janitor who was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for traveling to Somalia and providing “material support” to Al-Shabaab. Hopeman currently represents 19-year-old Zacharia Abdurahman.
Andy Birrell is a managing partner at Gasking, Bennett, Birrell and Schupp LLP. Birrell spends 70 percent of his time dealing with white-color cases and 30 percent in other criminal cases. Birrel also defended Mohamud Said Omar. Birrell is representing 19-year-old Hanad Musse.
Paul Engh handles white color crime cases 20 percent, federal appellate cases 40 percent, and other criminal cases 20 percent, respectively, according to Super Lawyers. Paul was part of the team who defended Tom Petters as well. He also represented Abdifatah Isse. Isse was sentenced to 3 years in prison and 20 years of supervision for leaving America to join Al Shabaab. Engh is currently representing 19-year-old Adnan Farah.
No rating was found for Glenn Bruder. But Bruder advertises his counsel for a wide range of topics including federal, white-collar crimes, DWI, domestic assault, drug crimes and mortgage frauds. Bruder lists winning a number of criminal cases after successfully persuading courts to suppress unconstitutionally gathered evidence. Bruder represents 20-year-old Guled Omar.
Patrick Nwaneri is the only privately retained attorney representing 21-year-old Mohamed Farah. Nwaneri advertises providing council on range of legal topics including immigration in his website; the site lists one other attorney and a paralegal. Hassan Mohamud, an Imam at Masjid Dawa in St. Paul, clerks for Nwaneri and provides spiritual counseling for Farah’s family. Somali community members who attended detention hearings bemoaned some of Nwaneri’s performance in court.
Bruce Nester is a civil rights attorney specializing in the first amendment. Nester has represented a number of high-profile clients on freedom-of-speech cases.
Nester represented Monica Bicking, one of the eight defendants charged with terrorism protesting in the 2008 RNC convention in St. Paul. Nester argued that “the statute's definition of 'terrorism' appears to be modeled after a statute in the Patriot Act.” Charges against Bicking were ultimately dismissed. In 2014, he successfully defended Rachel Bengston-Lang on charges of violating Minneapolis ordinates during a demonstration. Nester is part of the legal team defending Black Lives Matter leaders charged with illegal protest by Bloomington City Attorney.
Nester is arguably the most familiar with the political dimension of these cases. Nester has been heavily involved with Minnesota’s Somali community ever since September 11, fending off numerous illegal investigations by federal agencies targeting Somali-Americans. Nester currently represents 21-year-old Yasin Daud.
Defense attorneys are competent and hardworking, but they are disadvantaged. Their clients are politically unpopular and poor. The government is using information gathered by paid informant through wiretaps. These factors tilt the balance of justice towards the prosecution, increasing the likelihood that the defendants will plead guilty before trial.
If, however, defense attorneys pull an improbable victory, the Somali community will be clapping for them -- and not for the defendants.