Prospective Terrorism Jurors Said Muslims ‘Look Innocent but They’re Not’
Shocking transcripts from a New York City trial raise the question of whether terror suspects can get a fair trial when they are accused of attacking the city.
Prospective jurors in a recent terrorism trial of a Muslim man expressed shocking views that his faith condones terrorism, that he should be tried by the military, and that he was already guilty, according to transcripts first reviewed by The Daily Beast.
Ahmed el-Gammal was tried in a Manhattan federal court earlier this year, accused of helping a New York man travel to join ISIS. Prospective jurors often fill out written questionnaires about potential biases, but in el-Gammal’s case they answered questions from a judge orally. The transcripts are a rare look at unfiltered, off-the-cuff remarks about what terror trial jurors really think.
“Do you have any feelings about Islam or Muslims that you believe would interfere with your ability to serve impartially as a juror in this case?” Judge Edgardo Ramos asked the first potential juror in the el-Gammal case.
“Maybe,” she replied.
“The thing is I believe those kinds of people are terrorists and I’m afraid of terrorists,” the juror informed Ramos at sidebar.
Prosecutors tried to keep her in the mix after she backtracked and said she’d keep an open mind, even as defense attorneys pushed back.
“I present the Court with an analogy that in a case involving an African American defendant, if the response to the question, ‘What do you think about black people’ had been, ‘They are criminals and I’m scared of them,’ the analysis would have and should have stopped there,” countered federal defender Daniel Habib.
That juror, like others who showed their bias would inhibit them from being a fair juror, was dismissed by the judge. In the el-Gammal case, jurors’ conflicts ranged from childhood sex abuse to incontinence, but numerous jurors expressed an inability to be impartial in a trial about Muslims and terrorism in out-of-earshot conversations with the judge.
The next juror called wasn’t sure el-Gammal should be tried in a federal court rather than a military tribunal.
“I’m not sure,” an anesthesiologist said. “I think citizens should be tried in federal court, non-citizens I’m not so sure. I have no idea what Mr. El-Gammal is.
“I’m not sure—we are essentially in a war on terror right now, at least as far as I understand, and soldiers for the other side, I’m not sure they should be given full due process in federal courts,” he added.
Another juror echoed the idea that terror suspects “don’t play by the same rules.”
“I mean, this court is for American citizens who play by the rules and get a fair trial,” the other potential juror said. “They chop people’s heads off in the desert and on YouTube and I don’t think it’s the same.”
El-Gammal was not charged with being an ISIS soldier though, he was on trial for connecting a New York man to a friend in Turkey who allegedly helped the man cross over the Syrian border and into ISIS territory. He was eventually found guilty.
“I mean, I don’t see how anyone can sort of not have preconceived notions,” another early juror said. “I watch a lot of political commentary and—I mean, I have serious questions about what the religion—the doctrine of the religion. I have never read the Quran but I just have, you know, sort of that guy feeling that I think a lot of Americans do but I don’t know how…”
“So, you believe there may be some aspects of the Islamic religion that says it is OK to engage in acts of violence?” Ramos followed up.
“Correct,” the juror said, adding that she watches “a lot of Bill Maher.”
“Eh, Bill Maher…” Ramos said. “I’m going to excuse her.”
Other jurors claimed bias because of personal relationships with individuals harmed by terrorists, or coming from Armenian families affected by the Turkish genocide. More than a dozen cited losses from the Sept. 11 attacks as something that still weighed on their minds.
One juror disclosed that he had strong feelings about the CIA’s use of torture. Another said her best friend was Muslim.
“My sister-in-law is a journalist,” confided another potential juror, telling the judge that she’d made a podcast trying to humanize the families of ISIS fighters.
But the story didn’t make the potential juror any more sympathetic to the man facing trial.
“The reason I wanted the sidebar was I didn’t feel particularly sympathetic with the story,” he told the judge, “which I think speaks to a larger issue which is that I’m not particularly sympathetic to ISIS, what they’re fighting for.
“I’m sitting here struggling, wondering how I can be impartial about ISIS or rather, a trial that involved ISIS,” the potential juror said.
One woman told the judge she had particular feelings about Muslims and Islam.
“Muslims, must of the time they look innocent but they’re not,” she told the judge.
“Most of the time they look innocent but they’re not innocent?” Ramos repeated back.
“That’s my thought,” she replied, adding that she can’t be certain to give el-Gammal a fair shake. “Remember, we’re New Yorker, we always have in our minds 9/11.”
Soon after, another woman shared her opinion of Islam with the judge.
“I always believe that Muslim, their Quran, they always have that, that they would terrorize the world that’s why I have that kind of feelings and believe that’s their—that’s ingrained in their belief system,” she said.
“So you believe that terrorists, terrorism is engrained in the Muslim belief system?” the judge replied.
“In the Quran,” she confirmed.
Several jurors said they presumed that el-Gammal was guilty even before prosecutors made their case that he was.
“As soon as I heard that an individual was being charged with aiding ISIS, my immediate thought was, this person is not going to be innocent,” one said. “It seems as soon as someone is arrested, they just keep finding more and more things in their background that leads to their conviction.”
She wasn’t alone.
“Do you accept the premise that Mr. El-Gammal, as he sits here, is an innocent man?” Ramos asked a juror.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what he did,” the juror replied.
Ramos reminded him that the burden of proof is on the prosecution.
“He won’t have done anything unless and until after you hear all the evidence and you make a determination that these people to my right [the prosecutors] have carried their burden of establishing his guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Ramos told the juror.
“That’s true,” the juror conceded before waiting a beat. “Is he an American citizen?”
The selection of jurors cited above is, of course, made up of just those who freely admitted their biases and preconceptions in court. Those who said their bias would affect their judgement were dismissed by the judge before the next phase of jury selection.
Yet others may not have shared their views, as a potential juror who approached the judge about one of her colleagues pointed out.
“Your honor, I was in the hallway and we got into the elevator together, and we were discussing the, not the details but, like terrorism. He was like, oh, I’m biased,” she said. “So when it came to him here, I was shocked that he said he had no further questions.
“I’m just letting you know,” the woman, identified only as Lisa, told the judge. “He very clearly stated he’s very biased against terrorists, so I find it weird that when it came around to him he said he had no comment on anything.”
Four months after hearing what jurors said in the el-Gammal case, assistant U.S. attorney Andrew DeFilippis was part of a team that promised Judge Berman that accused Chelsea bomber Ahmad Rahimi will get an unbiased trial in that same district. Rahimi’s federal defenders, including Sabrina Shroff, who worked on the el-Gammal case, asked the judge to move the trial to Vermont or D.C., where jurors would not have a local connection to the alleged crimes. Ninety percent of potential jurors for Manhattan federal court recognized Rahimi’s case, according to a survey submitted by the defense.
Berman denied the defense’s request on Monday.