A prosecutor looking out for her undercover officer got schooled in Islamic dress.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer M. Sasso requested Thursday that Judge Sterling Johnson clear the court if an undercover informant ends up testifying in a case against two Queens women accused of building bombs for ISIS. Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddique called themselves “bad bitches” before they were arrested in April 2015. But their defense teams have since raised the question of how much they were entrapped by a undercover officer who went so far as to print them a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook.
The undercover—identified as going by “Melike Ser” in a Gothamist article about the NYPD’s years-long surveillance program—is expected to be a key part of the government’s case against Velentzas and Siddiqui. But Sasso asked that no one except family be allowed in the courtroom during her testimony, and that the public instead be allowed to listen to a live audio stream nearby.
The judge didn’t seem to see how that squared with the public’s right to open courts. He suggested obscuring the informant’s identity in a different way.
“Have you ever heard of the niqab?” Judge Johnson asked Sasso.
“I’m not sure of the term,” Sasso said.
“What about a burqa?” Johnson pressed.
That’s a garment where just the eyes show, Sasso answered. But Johnson corrected her.
“No, that’s niqab, I believe that’s the eyes,” he said.
Either of those, he suggested, could balance the public’s right to be in the courtroom with the government’s desire to keep Ser’s real identity a secret.
Charles Swift, an attorney for Siddiqui, agreed that a screen or some sort of costume would be the least invasive way to shield Ser’s true identity. Ordering the public out of the courtroom, Swift added, might also give the jury an illusion of a security need that might prejudice them against the defendants.
“Your alternative makes some sense to me, because she’s already been pretending,” he said.
Johnson is expected to decide on the matter by the next status conference in March.
The government also requested other protective measures for the undercover cop known to the defendants as “Mel,” including limiting cross-examination about her true identity and the pixelation of any photos of Mel released to the media. They said such images do not exist online. The Daily Beast, however, was able to surface photos of a woman identified in the caption as an NYPD informant known as Melike Ser within minutes of searching online this Thursday.