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Amr Mohsen’s ongoing plummet from prosperity hit what may have been its nadir on Monday in the stuffy, low-ceilinged Turk Street courtroom where his fate will be decided. During closing arguments in the former Silicon Valley millionaire’s trial for soliciting the murder of a federal judge, Mohsen’s lawyer, John Balazs, was forced into a rather awkward position. He had to argue that when his client was tape recorded saying that $25,000 seemed like a high figure for knocking off U.S. District Judge William Alsup, he was merely haggling over the price � and not indicating he had shopped around for hitmen. Of course, there was more to the defense: Balazs said Mohsen never really planned to kill the judge. And the prosecution relies on the testimony of the informant, Manuel Primas, an oft-incarcerated career criminal with a drug habit. “You just can’t believe Manny Primas,” Balazs said. And even if you could, he added, the circumstances of their taped conversation “do not corroborate that Amr wanted the judge killed. In fact, they do the opposite.” For a case involving alleged attempts to kill a judge and burn a witness’s car, closing arguments in the second of two trials for Mohsen � he was convicted March 1 in a previous trial of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, perjury, suborning perjury and mail fraud � were remarkably serene. In fact, the only real tension came during a late-afternoon exchange between Judge William Shubb and Mohsen’s family and friends, who claimed a juror was asleep during the prosecution’s argument. “I don’t need any help from the audience on how to run this trial,” said Shubb, the senior district judge from the Eastern District of California who is hearing the Mohsen case because the Northern District bench recused itself. “If in fact any of them had slept during the government’s argument, it would be to the advantage of the defendant,” he added. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin Harris made a rather straightforward and dispassionate � even professorial � argument that after Mohsen was arrested for doctoring his notebooks in a patent case, his criminal behavior escalated. Backed up by a large chart entitled “Mohsen’s criminal escalation,” Harris told the jury that Mohsen should be looked at with such skepticism that even Primas, who cooperated with the government in exchange for leniency in an armed robbery prosecution, had more credibility. Primas would like to think so. Despite his highly impeachable background � which consists of nine felony convictions, including at least one with a gun, along with a recent arrest just before trial when he was found with a crack pipe � the informant availed himself well on the witness stand last week. He came off as intelligent, unflappable and surprisingly sharp for someone who’s fallen on such hard times that when he’s not incarcerated he washes windshields at gas stations for a living. Primas testified that after meeting Mohsen at an Alameda County jail in 2004 after Mohsen, who was awaiting trial, was picked up for being a flight risk, Mohsen paid him $5,000 for legal research. Primas was a self-styled “jailhouse lawyer.” But in retrospect, he said, Mohsen seemed to have an ulterior motive for paying that money, and eventually asked for help intimidating witnesses in his upcoming criminal trial for faking his notebooks in the civil case before Alsup. Primas told his lawyer about the request, and agreed to wear a wire, recording conversations in which Mohsen wanted threatening phone calls made to witnesses, and where he asked for one witness’s car to be blown up � an act for which Mohsen received confirmation in the form of a photo of a burning car doctored by the FBI. In an earlier conversation that was not recorded, Mohsen allegedly asked Primas to kill Alsup, who threw out Mohsen’s civil case, referred it to prosecutors, and planned to preside over the criminal case. “Then I knew it was � shit, I knew stuff was way out of control then,” he told the jury. But because Mohsen hedged in a subsequent conversation about Alsup that was recorded, the government rooted its solicitation of murder charge in the unrecorded phone conversation, leaving ambiguity. As Balazs pointed out when cross-examining Primas, real questions can be raised about his motives. “By the time you met with prosecutors, you were willing to do anything to get out of jail, right?” Balazs asked. “Practically,” Primas replied. “I would’ve done a lot of things.” Arguments will end today, and it will be up to the jury to decide whether exaggerating Mohsen’s intent to intimidate witnesses and kill a judge were two of those things.

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