Language differences, a two-decade time gap and evidence lost amid the chaos of war-torn Bosnia have added layers of complexity to the legal arguments over whether Forest Lake resident Zdenko Jakisa, accused of coming to the United States under false cover as a refugee, should be deported.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau heard arguments Friday on whether the case against Jakisa should be dismissed.
Arguments focused on whether the 10-year statute of limitations has expired from the time Jakisa allegedly lied on immigration documents — including failing to disclose a murder conviction — that allowed him to come to the United States in 1998 with his wife, Anna.
Another issue was whether the long delay in bringing the indictment against Jakisa has made it so difficult to defend himself that his right to a fair trial has been jeopardized.
Jakisa, 46, was indicted by a grand jury in April on a charge of immigration fraud. He pleaded not guilty and has been free on $25,000 bond.
According to prosecutors, Jakisa served at various times between 1991 and 1995 with the notorious HVO, the Hrvatsko Vijece Odbrane, made up of shock troops under the command of the Croatian Defense Council, which has been linked to wartime atrocities.
Bosnian court records indicate he was either arrested or charged with an array of crimes, including violent behavior, grand larceny, theft, causing general danger, infliction of grievous bodily damage and robbery. He also is suspected of war crimes against civilians and is wanted for questioning.
The charge of causing general danger is related to the death of Nevenka Elezovic, a 62-year-old Serbian woman, in September 1993 in the Bosnian city of Capljina. Witnesses and Bosnian court records show it was Jakisa who shot her.
But Jakisa's attorney, Reynaldo Aligada Jr., said another man who was with Jakisa when Elezovic was killed implicated himself in her death. That man has since died, and the alleged murder weapon has been lost.
While that murder case was pending, Jakisa left Bosnia and traveled to Croatia in January 1998, successfully applying for refugee status to immigrate to the United States and arriving in Forest Lake a few months later with the aid of a local church. He was convicted in absentia for Elezovic's death in December 1998.
New documents related to the case show that two brothers in Capljina also accuse Jakisa of murdering their parents, Ahmet and Emina Basic. Jakisa has not been charged in their deaths, but the investigation into the case is apparently still open, documents show.
Though Jakisa is only accused of lying to get his legal permanent resident status, or "green card," the murder conviction is a key issue.
"The government is essentially going to try a case within a case," Aligada said, adding that the passage of more than 20 years has tainted both witnesses and evidence that could defend Jakisa.
But Ann Marie Ursini, with the U.S. attorney's office, said the delay did not jeopardize Jakisa's right to a fair trial. The delay resulted from a complex investigation involving two federal agencies, translations of reams of documents and witness interviews overseas.
The sides also disagreed on when the clock on the statute of limitations began ticking or whether it began ticking at all, given that he was possessing the green card illegally.
Both in 1998 and when applying for the green card three years later, prosecutors allege, Jakisa failed to disclose either his criminal record or his service with the HVO. He lost the green card in 2012 and applied for a replacement.
In any case, Ursini said, the fact that Jakisa held an illegally obtained card meant he was breaking the law.
While Jakisa was granted a green card, his application for naturalization was rejected because of a string of crimes he had committed after arriving in the United States, including several drunken-driving convictions. Jakisa's green card was confiscated in April.
Rau will make a decision on the dismissal and other arguments in coming days. If a trial proceeds, it would start Dec. 8.