For 91 potential jurors in the upcoming terrorism support trial of two South Florida clerics, it wasn’t a normal trial questionnaire waiting for them Wednesday at the federal courthouse in downtown Miami.
Among the usual questions, such as if they had ever been a victim of a crime, there were asked others that are less common. One question concerned how familiar they are with the Islamic faith; another if they ever lost a loved one to an act of terror.
For the defense teams of Hafiz Khan and his son Izhar Khan, these next few days may be the most crucial part of what is expected to be a nine-week trial.
“In many ways, that’s the case,” Hafiz Khan’s attorney, Khurrum B. Wahid, said of the jury selection. “If it wasn’t for some of these hot-button issues, we wouldn’t have the uphill battle.”
The father-and-son clerics are accused of funneling $50,000 to the Pakistan Taliban through friends in their native country. The Taliban has been tied to al Qaeda and is suspected in the failed attempt to bomb New York’s Times Square in May 2010.
Both Khans are American citizens. Izhar Khan was the much beloved head of a mosque in Margate. His father ran the Flagler Mosque in Miami.
Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office have 1,000 wiretapped phone calls at their disposal that allegedly show Hafiz Khan calling for violence against Pakistan politicians.
Prosecutors have said their case against the elder Khan is stronger, but that they have evidence that the father told the son that the money sent to Pakistan was “for the mujahedeen.”
The government is represented by two veteran prosecutors: assistant U.S. attorneys Pat Sullivan and John Shipley.
Opening statements are expected Friday.
Both have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and material support to terrorism. Each count carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. Charges were dismissed last year against another son, Irfan Khan, against whom prosecutors had far less evidence.
Wahid has talked about arguing to the jury that the statements made on the phone by his client are not acts of terrorism but protected speech under the First Amendment. The defense is also expected to tell the jury that the money was meant to help family and friends in the violence-ridden Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan.
In early February, defense attorneys will travel to Pakistan during a weeklong break in the trial to depose five key witnesses, including family members who have been charged in the indictment.
The elder Khan’s frailty has been an issue, though he was without his wheelchair on Wednesday. Wahid has said his client has short-term memory loss, but the 77-year-old Khan was found by U.S. District Judge Robert Scola to be mentally fit to stand trial after a long evaluation.
Hafiz Khan shuffled in and out of the courtroom Wednesday, wearing a light green knit cap in deference to his religion.
The jury pool was broken up into two groups Wednesday morning and summoned to Scola’s courtroom. The judge told them the question at hand was not one of politics or religion, but whether they could view the evidence impartially.
“I hope everybody is against terrorism and terrorist organizations, but that is not the question,” Scola said.
The jurors were asked to answer 21 questions with copies of their questionnaires immediately made available for the defense and prosecution to determine which ones will be dismissed for cause.
Today, Scola will call back a smaller pool of potential jurors who will be questioned by him, defense attorneys and prosecutors.
Wahid said he is looking for honest responses to seat a “sensitive” jury.
Izhar Khan’s attorney, Joseph Rosenbaum, has hired jury consultant Louise Quinon-Teza, who worked for the defense in the prosecution of a ValuJet mechanic acquitted of negligent acts that contributed to the 1996 crash of Flight 592 that killed 110 passengers and crew in the Everglades west of Miami.
Quinon-Teza said, as with any other trial, she is looking for jurors who can be fair and impartial. She not only will study the answers to the questionnaires but will be keenly watching how the jurors react in the courtroom.
She will be looking to see if they are engaged or aloof.
“I look to see how they are interacting with each other, whether they have leadership qualities,” Quinon-Teza said.