News

Richard Convertino Acquitted of Rigging Trial

The Detroit Free Press reported that former federal prosecutor Richard Convertino, lead Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Detroit Sleeper Cell prosecutions of Karim Koubriti and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, was aquitted of rigging that trial.

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TERROR CASE PROSECUTOR ACQUITTED OF RIGGING TRIAL; JURY: CONVERTINO AND AGENT DIDN'T HIDE EVIDENCE

By: Joe Swickard and Christina Hall

In a case born from the wreckage of the first terrorism trial after the 9/11 attacks, a Detroit federal court jury needed less than a day to acquit former prosecutor Richard Convertino and federal agent Ray Smith on Wednesday of subverting justice in that 2003 trial.

The panel cleared Convertino and Smith of keeping photographs from defense attorneys that might have undermined their 2003 prosecution and convictions of alleged sleeper cell terrorists in Detroit. "Defendant Convertino, not guilty; Defendant Smith, not guilty," the jury foreman said to charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making a false declaration to a court.

In 2003, defense attorneys wanted photos of a Jordanian hospital in hopes of proving it did not match a crude drawing Convertino argued was a terrorist planning sketch. Convertino said there were none, but photos of the hospital were later found.

In 2006, a federal grand jury charged that Convertino deliberately hid the photos. His defense team said he overlooked them in a mountain of evidence. In 2003, U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft personally spoke of the efforts in Detroit, and Convertino was later lauded for showing that the U.S. justice system could thwart terrorists.

The convictions were thrown out in 2004 because of alleged prosecutorial misconduct, but a measure of vindication was handed to Convertino on Wednesday with the rapid-fire acquittal.

With stifled gasps from the gallery, Convertino and Smith hugged their wives as their lawyers, William Sullivan and Thomas Cranmer, shook hands and hugged supporters who had filled U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow's courtroom daily.

Ordeal not over yet

"This was a politically motivated prosecution that never should have been brought," said Convertino, a highly honored former federal prosecutor who filed a whistle-blower suit against the Justice Department and former colleagues in Detroit. That suit is pending.

Convertino, whose lawsuit alleges he was punished for decrying the lack of resources in the terrorism trial, said: "This was a four-year investigation, and they went all over the world. I wish all those resources" had been available for the 2003 case.

Sullivan and Cranmer argued to jurors that Convertino and Smith were heroes.

Convertino "acted to save lives, and in my opinion, it might have been your own," Sullivan told jurors.

Daniel Schwager, a prosecutor from the Justice Department's public integrity section, was brief in his reaction to the verdict: "This was important to the system, and we respect the jury's verdict."

The charges against Convertino and Smith were felonies that carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and $750,000 in fines upon conviction.

Convertino is still under indictment for obstruction of justice, charged with lying to a judge in a sentencing hearing by misrepresenting a defendant's cooperation to get a vastly reduced sentence. That charge, separated from this trial, is still pending.

Trial full of complexities

The prosecution's case may have gone off the rails with the first witness, Samir Jarandogha, a Jordanian security liaison at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan who admitted that he lied to Tarnow the day before in a pretrial hearing. He falsely claimed a Jordanian lawyer advised him not to meet with defense lawyers.

Cranmer and Sullivan pounced, calling it supreme irony for the federal government to open with a confessed liar.

At times, the trial seemed a topsy-turvy world, with prosecutors going after a former prosecution team. Much of the case was spent on the judicial postmortem of the 2003 terrorism trial - dissecting the prosecution and defense tactics, evidence and testimony.

And more dizzying layers were piled on. Several prosecution witnesses lauded the skills, energy and dedication Smith and Convertino showed.

Yet another prosecution witness, a terrorism expert appearing under a court-approved pseudonym, was labeled a hostile witness at the request of prosecutors who called him to the stand and put him through a rugged cross-examination. The witness said his faith in the 2003 case was stronger than ever.

At the center of the current case was the trial of Karim Koubriti and three associates, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, Ahmed Hannan and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi.

A week after 9/11, federal agents went to a flat in southwest Detroit looking for Nabil Almarabh, who was No. 27 on the nation's terrorist watch list. Almarabh wasn't there, but agents found a raft of phony identification material, a videotape and a day planner with a series of crude drawings.

The drawings were seen as casing sketches of potential terrorism targets in Turkey and Jordan.

But, according to e-mails, the 2003 prosecution team worried about claims that the pictures were drawn by a mentally ill man with delusions of military glory who had committed suicide.

At the trial, agents testified the drawings matched the hospital, but that the government had no photos of the hospital.

Smith, an embassy security agent in Jordan, testified that he helicoptered over the hospital with Jordanian police, but didn't take pictures because that would cause an international incident.

That trial ended with Elmardoudi and Koubriti convicted of the terrorism charges and Hannan of document fraud. Ali-Haimoud was acquitted.

The verdicts were hailed as the first post-9/11 courtroom victories over terrorists, but allegations swirled that Convertino cheated by hiding evidence. In 2006, Convertino and Smith were indicted. E-mails were found indicating that photos were taken of the hospital.

During this trial, Convertino's lawyers argued the photos were overlooked because he was overwhelmed by reams of evidence while getting little help - but lots of hectoring - from Washington. The photos had little value anyway, he said.

Cranmer said Smith would be the last person to enlist in a crooked scheme.