Terrorism convictions in Detroit cited last year by Attorney General John Ashcroft as proof that the government’s war on terrorism was working should be dismissed, according to the Justice Department, which now says prosecutors erred in bringing the nation’s first post-September 11 case.
Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 38, and Karim Koubriti, 25, both Moroccans, were found guilty in June 2003 of conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism. A co-defendant, Ahmed Hannan, 35, also Moroccan, was convicted of document fraud. They were accused of being members of a “sleeper” cell that schemed to commit terrorist acts against U.S. targets.
Koubriti and Elmardoudi remain in custody, each facing prisons terms of five to 10 years. Hannan posted bond and was freed, although he faced a five-year term.
But in a 60-page memo, the Justice Department said this week that the prosecution was filled with a “pattern of mistakes and oversights” that warranted dismissal of the convictions. An internal Justice probe found evidence prosecutors failed to turn over before trial.
“In its best light, the record would show the prosecution committed a pattern of mistakes and oversights that deprived the defendants of discoverable evidence … and created a record filled with misleading inferences that such material did not exist,” the Justice memo said.
The convictions, however, had been in jeopardy for several months, and sentencing in the case had been delayed by U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen, who called the case “a fine kettle of fish.”
The lead prosecutor, Richard Convertino, was removed, as was his boss, Keith Corbett. Justice Department lawyers and FBI agents in Washington and Detroit have focused on accusations of misconduct by the prosecution. Mr. Ashcroft was censured by the presiding judge.
Mr. Convertino told jurors the men belonged to a radical Islamic organization that sought to fulfill calls by al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and others for violence against U.S. targets.
After the convictions, Mr. Ashcroft said the case showed the Justice Department would “work diligently to detect, disrupt and dismantle” terrorist cells in the United States and abroad, adding that “every victory in the courtroom brings us closer to our ultimate goal of victory in the war on terrorism.”
Seven months before the verdict, Mr. Ashcroft described the government’s key witness, Youssef Hmimssa, as a “critical tool” in the war on terrorism, a remark that brought the threat of a contempt charge by the judge.
Mr. Ashcroft apologized and promised to “make every effort” to avoid similar statements.
The apology came after Judge Rosen said Mr. Ashcroft “exhibited a distressing lack of care” by making public statements about the then-pending case despite a gag order. The judge stopped short of charging Mr. Ashcroft with contempt, but said a public rebuke was necessary.
Judge Rosen also admonished federal prosecutors in the case for withholding documents he said “should have been turned over” to defense attorneys and ordered the Justice Department and FBI to investigate the case.
Defense attorneys said Mr. Convertino and Mr. Corbett, head of the office’s Organized Crime Strike Force Unit, withheld documents their clients were entitled to see, denying them a fair trial. Mr. Convertino also was accused of making unapproved plea agreements to encourage witnesses to cooperate.
Both prosecutors denied the accusations, but were removed from the case by U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins — just days before Mr. Convertino was scheduled to testify before the Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the committee, later accused Mr. Collins of retaliating against Mr. Convertino over the committee appearance, saying the prosecutor had been subpoenaed and had no choice but to appear and answer questions.
Mr. Convertino has been under investigation for months and filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Mr. Ashcroft and others this year. That suit is pending.