NEW YORK (AP) - A judge rejected the federal government’s request for anonymous jurors on Monday as the trial began for an Arizona man charged with aiding the Islamic State by helping a New Yorker travel to Syria.
U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos said he would allow the use of prospective juror names “at least initially” rather than referencing them by numbers as he builds a jury capable of hearing the evidence against Ahmed Mohammed el-Gammal over the next few weeks.
The resident of the Phoenix suburb of Avondale has pleaded not guilty to charges he helped Samy el-Goarany get to Syria. Prosecutors said el-Goarany told his family he was returning to a New York college in early 2015 when he instead went to train with the Islamic State. Prosecutors said the 24-year-old died in Syria later that year.
The judge questioned jurors individually on Monday, seeking to weed out bias among dozens of prospective jurors. Opening statements were expected to begin late Tuesday or Wednesday.
In seeking an anonymous jury, prosecutors wrote that the Islamic State was “an extremely violent terrorist organization that has publicly published ‘kill lists’ of United States citizens including New York residents.”
Defense lawyers countered that agreeing to the government’s demands would “warrant anonymous juries in every terrorism prosecution.”
The judge called the use of an anonymous jury a “drastic measure” that risked unfair prejudice to el-Gammal.
He said the practice should be reserved for those instances when there is a substantial chance of corruption in the jury process and he did not believe the threat was sufficient in el-Gammal’s trial.
The judge noted that el-Gammal is not accused of any violent acts and that the charges against him carry potential penalties between five and 20 years in prison. In some terrorism cases in which anonymous juries have been used, the potential penalty for a conviction has included life in prison or the death penalty.
Ramos cited at least one other case in which a defendant faced more serious charges and jurors’ names were not hidden. As for media interest in the case, one of the factors he must consider, Ramos said, “I’ve not been deluged by the press with any inquiries.”
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