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Federal appeals court upholds convictions of terrorist conspirators

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David Demirbilek Contributor

On Thursday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit denied all appeals by three terrorist conspirators convicted as the result of a nearly four-year undercover FBI sting operation.

The court, comprising one Reagan and two Clinton appointees, upheld the validity of the sting operation and also found that no Miranda rights were violated in its aftermath.  The court relied in part on a contentious 2010 Supreme Court case splitting 5-4 down ideological lines.

The three conspirators were originally charged in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio with conspiracy to kill and maim persons outside the U.S. and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists in furtherance of the killing of U.S. nationals.  Two were charged with distributing information regarding the manufacture of explosives, destructive devices and WMD.  The Sixth Circuit upheld all sentences, ranging from approximately 8 to 20 years.

According to the ruling, the FBI assigned Darren Griffin, a paid informant, to embed himself in the Muslim community in Toledo, Ohio, after 9/11.  Griffin donned the guise of an “ex-Green Beret, disenchanted with the United States.”  He infiltrated a local mosque and took a job with a Muslim charity.

The convicted conspirators first approached Griffin after meeting at a mosque in September of 2002 and asked whether he would help train them for “jihad.”  As part of his cover, Griffin created a security company as a front and assisted the conspirators by training them in various combat tactics.  He also furnished the conspirators with FBI-supplied computers and satellite phones.

Griffin helped deliver these devices to Jordan in December of 2005 with one of the conspirators, Mohammad Amawi.  After Griffin returned alone from Jordan on February 17, 2006, the FBI informed him that his cover was blown.  Two days later, FBI agents arrested Amawi in Jordan.  The FBI interrogated Amawi on the plane back to the United States.

At trial, the defendants attempted to challenge the sting operation, claiming it amounted to entrapment and “outrageous government conduct.”  The district judge denied defendants’ motions, and the Sixth Circuit upheld the district court’s denial.

Amawi also challenged his arrest on the grounds that federal agents violated his Miranda rights on the plane from Jordan to the United States.

In transit, a federal agent read the newly arrested Amawi his Miranda rights.  After the agent explained the ramifications of speaking without a lawyer present, Amawi interrupted, saying, “I’m going to wait.”  He next asked if there was a lawyer on board the plane.  The agent replied there was not and then finished reading Amawi his rights.

Nevertheless, after Amawi signed the Miranda waiver form, he spoke for hours, making numerous admissions of guilt used by the government at trial.  Amawi attempted to suppress these admissions on appeal.  He argued that stating he was “going to wait” invoked his right to remain silent and also that asking whether there was a lawyer on board invoked his right to counsel.  He additionally claimed the federal agent was required to clarify the meaning of these statements.

The Sixth Circuit flatly rejected Amawi’s entire argument.  The court declared that Amawi’s statements on the plane were too vague to alert the agent that Amawi was invoking his Miranda rights.  The court believed that the federal agent was “reasonable” in interpreting Amawi’s statements on the plane.  The agent also had no duty to ask Amawi to clarify his ambiguous statements that could have been an attempt to invoke his Miranda rights.

The Sixth Circuit required the accused be “clear and unequivocal” in invoking his Miranda rights.  The court cited the 2010 Supreme Court case Berghuis v. Thompkins in justifying the “clear and unequivocal” standard.  The Berghuis decision split 5-4 with Justice Anthony Kennedy siding with the Court’s conservative bloc and authoring the opinion.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored the dissent, criticizing what she saw as the erosion of Miranda rights.  On the contrary, conservative legal scholar John Yoo argued that the ruling was a long-awaited corrective to misguided Miranda jurisprudence that would ultimately “ease the burdens on our military, intelligence, and police.”

The three conspirators appealed unsuccessfully on numerous other grounds.  These ranged from the sufficiency of the evidence underlying their convictions to the exclusion of their expert witnesses at trial who would have testified about Islamist culture and social norms in the Middle East.

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