DETROIT – Civil rights advocates and legal experts Wednesday praised the government’s 60-page account of missteps in a major terrorism case as a rare admission that its own prosecutors made errors that deprived defendants of a fair trial.
In a court memo filed late Tuesday night, the Justice Department said the prosecution of a suspected terror cell in Detroit was filled with a “pattern of mistakes and oversights” that warrant the dismissal of the convictions.
“For the government to step up to the plate and admit that a case that it so highly touted was full of so many holes and so many problems is a very surprising, very welcome development,” said David A. Moran, a law professor at Wayne State University.
The department said it supports the Detroit defendants’ request for a new trial and would no longer pursue terrorism charges against them. The defendants at most would only face fraud charges at a new trial.
The memo came after a monthslong internal investigation uncovered several pieces of evidence that prosecutors failed to turn over to defense lawyers before the trial last year that called into question the government’s conclusion that the men were conducting surveillance for terrorist activities.
Some within the government did not believe sketches made by the men contained any useful information. And the government also called into question the testimony of a key witness whose testimony had changed in different interviews.
The investigation found enough problems that there is “no reasonable prospect of winning,” the government conceded, drawing back from a case once hailed by the Bush administration as a major victory in the war on terror.
Imad Hamad, midwest regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the case should serve as a “wake-up call.” He said it was an example of the government suspecting terrorism whenever Arabs are believed to be involved in any kind of criminal activity.
“Crimes committed by individuals who happen to be of Middle Eastern descent are treated in a more high profile way, and in the vast majority of cases, linked to terrorism,” Hamad said.
Karim Koubriti, 26, and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 38, were convicted in June 2003 of conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism and to engage in fraud and misuse of visas and other documents. Ahmed Hannan, 36, was convicted of only the fraud charge, and Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 24, was acquitted.
Koubriti has been in jail since his September 2001 arrest. Elmardoudi has been in jail since November 2002. Hannan was released on bond into a halfway house in April.
The defense lawyers said they expect U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen to agree with the government. But they said they want him to go further.
“We think the misconduct was so pervasive and so serious that there should not be a second trial,” said Hannan’s lawyer, James C. Thomas.