By Milton J. Valencia, Globe Staff
With closing statements in the trial of Tarek Mehanna set for Friday, defense attorneys for the Sudbury man accused of supporting Al Qaeda lashed out at federal prosecutors today, saying the government had infringed on Mehannna’s constitutional rights to free speech and to a fair trial.
The heated exchange was the latest in what has been a dramatic back-and-forth between prosecutors and defense attorneys since testimony in the trial began Oct. 28.
The defense lawyers particularly took issue with the prosecutors’ objection to a special verdict form that would have jurors record, when delivering their verdict, whether they had found that Mehanna violated federal laws by translating documents in support of Al Qaeda.
Prosecutors argued there was no justification to poll jurors on that question. But defense attorneys said it would document how jurors had arrived at their verdict and acknowledged it might provide a useful record for the defense if Mehanna is convicted and lodges an appeal. Defense attorneys say the law is not clear yet on whether translating the documents constitutes a violation of the law.
Attorney J.W. Carney Jr. grew animated, standing up in the courtroom, saying, “I’m offended. As a United States citizen, I’m offended by my government, that you would take that position. This man is protected by the United States Constitution,” which preserves his right to appeal.
He added later, “They’d rather have him in prison for the rest of his life for doing something protected by the United States Constitution.”
US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. indicated he would not approve the special form, which would have had jurors check boxes saying whether they thought Mehanna conspired to provide material support for terrorists, and if so, whether they thought that the support derived from his translation of documents, a trip he took to Yemen seeking terrorism training, or both.
Carney argued that appellate courts have yet to decide whether translating documents alone constitutes “material support” for terrorists. If an appeals court “says it does not, then it does not,” he said.
Carney had also asked for more detailed jury instructions on the definition of “material support,” so that the instructions made clear it would be a crime to work in “coordination” with a terrorism group. O’Toole said he would consider the request.
O’Toole will instruct the jury following closing arguments. Realizing the complexity of the case, the judge also said he would immediately provide jurors with transcripts of his verbal instructions by Friday afternoon.
Mehanna, 29, an American citizen who grew up in Sudbury, faces charges of conspiring to support terrorists, conspiring to kill in a foreign country, and lying to federal investigators. He faces a possible sentence of up to life in prison.
Prosecutors say Mehanna travelled to Yemen in 2004 in search of terrorism training, so that he could carry out jihad, or holy war, in support of Al Qaeda against US soldiers in Iraq. He failed to find a camp and returned to the United States.
Mehanna is also said to have supported Al Qaeda by translating the group’s documents into English and distributing them on the Internet.
Defense lawyers say Mehanna had the First Amendment right to distribute the information. They also say he was expressing his own opposition to US foreign policy and in defense of Muslims, and that he never worked in partnership with any terror organization.
The defense attorneys also maintain that Mehanna travelled to Yemen in search of schools, to further his studies in Islamic jurisprudence and in Arabic.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.