Beth Hyams: Mohamed Mohamud now has a trial date — next April. He’s the young man accused of plotting to detonate a bomb in downtown Portland last year. He appeared in court today for a hearing on evidence for the case. April Baer was there and joins me now. April, what’s the status of the case?
April Baer: First off, it looks as though the case may be closer to trial. Judge Garr King has set a trial date: April 10, 2012. Now, a lot can happen between now and then. Just because you have a court date doesn’t mean your case goes to trial. But both government prosecutors and Mohamud’s defense attorneys are sparring over evidence with every apparent intention of preparing for trial.
Beth Hyams: Can you refresh us on the details of the case?
April Baer: Sure. Mohamud is a 19-year-old who grew up in Beaverton. Last November, over Thanksgiving weekend, he was arrested on suspicion of trying to set off a weapon of mass destruction. The FBI had Mohamud under surveillance for months, and had undercover operatives working with him. Prosecutors claim Mohamud hatched a plot to plant a bomb at Portland’s holiday tree lighting. Mohamud’s attorneys say that’s not what happened at all. They appear to be building a case that agents were the drivers of the plot.
Beth Hyams: How the defense strategy taking shape?
April Baer: It’s the kind of thing we have to piece together based on court filings so far, and things we’ve heard in court hearings. Not every hearing for this case has been held in open court. That said, today’s hearing offered a look at part of the defense’s roadmap.
Federal Public Defender Steve Sady made oral arguments today for several kinds of evidence the defense team wants for its case. He covered a lot of ground. It appears the discovery process has already divulged some records of how the government watched Mohamud, and what they found in his belongings - including his computer hard drives, and records of the meetings he had with a couple of FBI operatives.
Sady is asking Judge King for more.
One set of evidence discussed today was all the government’s records from websites that Mohamud checked out. Sady said today the defense noticed some material in the discovery process indicating that some evidence against Mohamud may have been gathered as early as 2008.
Beth Hyams: Why is that significant?
April Baer: We don’t know for sure, but one possibility might have to do with Mohamud’s age. He’s 19 now. If the defense is correct, and the government was watching Mohamud in 2008, he might have been as young as 16. Possibly Sady’s team wants to point that out at trial. Judge King asked the defense to submit some additional arguments privately, and shelved the question for now.
Later in the hearing, Sady asked Judge King to compel prosecutors to offer more information about the background and training of the operatives who worked with Mohamud. Sady said it could be relevant to the defense in showing whether the operatives were taking advantage of someone who’s relatively vulnerable. That’s another allusion to Mohamud’s age.
It’s really hard to gauge the extent to which these premises would sway a jury, but it appears the defense is prepared to find out.
Beth Hyams: What other kinds of evidence were discussed?
April Baer: The defense has been trying to get closer to the audio/visual materials FBI agents made of their meetings with Mohamud. He and the operatives met several times between July and November of last year. Defense attorneys have been able to see video and hear audio tapes of those meetings. Today they argued they also need footage of what happened before their client was in the room. Meaning to say, they want to know what FBI agents and operatives were talking about amongst themselves while they were waiting for Mohamud, or after he left them. The Justice Department’s Ethan Knight says there simply is no legal authority to approve that kind of release. Judge King decided he’d have a look at the footage and decide whether it’s pertinent to the case.
Also, the matter of the faulty tape recording was revisited. FBI agents say they have a partial audio record of their first meeting with Mohamud. In the affidavit filed with documents for Mohamud’s arrest, prosecutors said the machine had technical problems. A later document made two references to the same incident. The first time prosecutors said the device had not been properly activated. The second time was a bit more explicit, saying the device ran out of battery power. Prosecutor Ethan Knight re-affirmed today that explanation.
Defense attorneys want a chance to examine the device, its power supply, its service record. Judge King agreed to let them have it, saying if they want to spend their time having an expert check it out, he’d allow that.
Beth Hyams: Is Mohamud being held in jail?
Mohamud remains in federal custody. His family was at the hearing today but did not speak publicly.