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N.Y. Bombing Trial Opens As Muslims Watch Closely

Prosecution will rely on circumstantial evidence, forensic testimony

FEDERAL Judge Kevin Duffy's courtroom holds only about 100 spectators, but millions more will be following the trial of the alleged bombers of the World Trade Center when jury selection begins today.

Once it is over in about two weeks, the high-profile case will begin.

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For many New Yorkers, the trial will be a catharsis. Millions had their personal security jolted when a bomb went off in an underground garage Feb. 26. Nearly 50,000 people who worked in the towers were evacuated, six people died, and more than 1,000 were injured.

Shortly after the blast, Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) said the best answer to the bombing ``is to find out who did it, apprehend the people who did it, and then punish them as your law allows you to.''

Working quickly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other state and federal agencies arrested four people, who the government claims mixed a deadly combination of explosives. Ultimately, seven people, two of whom remain fugitives, were charged. One will be tried later. Defendants could face life sentences.

The case will also be of great interest to Muslims around the world since the defendants are followers of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric facing federal charges of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts. ``There will be a billion Muslim eyes on the case,'' says Jim Bill, director of the Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He notes that many Muslims consider themselves under attack. ``They feel they are the afflicted, not the afflicters.''

The Islamic Public Affairs Council, a Muslim voice, says it will watch the trial for fairness. ``We have all seen fair trials and trials that are less than fair,'' says Yaser El Menshawy, the director.

The fair-trial issue may be hard to prove in a Muslim's eyes. The prosecutor is not expected to call witnesses who can place the defendants in the trade-center garage prior to the explosion. Instead, the government will rely on circumstantial evidence, such as the fact that the defendants rented the van used in the explosion and storage space for chemicals used in making explosives.

There will be plenty of forensic testimony from FBI technicians. ``The FBI labs are second to none, and they have always been very knowledgeable about taking results in a form admissible as evidence, and which plays well at trial,'' says Michael Tigar, a University of Texas Law School professor. There have been reports that the FBI, for example, is producing a film that shows what it looks like for a bomb to explode in a van packed with the same explosives used in the bombing.

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As a result of evidence, prosecutor will ask jurors to make inferences that the defendants planted the bomb. ``From a legal-weight point of view, the issue normally turns out how reasonable are the inferences,'' explains Otto Obermaier, a partner at Weil Gotshal & Manges and former federal prosecutor. He notes that, in some types of crime, circumstantial evidence is stronger than direct evidence. Mr. ElMenshawy says he would accept a guilty verdict if there is ``overwhelming'' circumstantial evidence.

The defense is likely to try to find holes in the prosecution's case. The importance of this tactic became evident during Robert Altman's fraud trial in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International collapse. His lawyer found numerous gaps in the government's case. ``It was not until this case was a little ways along that folks began to say this guy will be acquitted,'' Mr. Tigar says.

It is also possible the defendants will claim entrapment. A government informant will be a chief witness in a broader case brought against eight men June 23. The informant reportedly showed some defendants how to make bombs.

The entrapment defense, however, may allow the prosecution to show that the defendants had a predisposition to commit the crime. Thus, the prosecutor can present evidence of past crimes. Or, as Obermaier notes, the prosecutor can present testimony that the individuals were in a mosque when preaching focused on destroying American places and symbols.

It is also unclear how the judge will react to different moves presented by the defense. Judge Duffy is known as blunt and plain-spoken. But his court decisions have been reversed by appeals courts several times.

In fact, the now-defunct magazine Manhattan Lawyer reported in a story that Duffy's decisions were reversed in 29 percent of appeals from 1986 to mid-1988. This made him the second-most-reversed judge in the Southern District of New York. Prior to this trial, he attempted to impose a gag order on all federal agencies involved in the case. The order was thrown out by the Court of Appeals.

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