Jurors in the Fort Dix terrorism trial continued deliberations yesterday in the case against five foreign-born Muslims charged with plotting an attack on the South Jersey military base.
The anonymously selected panel, sequestered since deliberations began Wednesday morning, has spent about 28 hours weighing the evidence and testimony from the eight-week trial.
The jurors requested to resume their deliberations today at 8:30 a.m., an hour earlier than usual, U.S. District Judge Robert B. Kugler said yesterday.
"They told me again they were making progress and they were all getting along," Kugler said after the jurors had retired for the day.
The defendants, all raised in the Cherry Hill area, face potential life sentences if convicted of the most serious charges: conspiring to murder and attempting to murder U.S. military personnel.
Four of the defendants also face weapons charges.
The jury of eight women and four men, housed in an undisclosed hotel, is shuttled to and from the federal courthouse in Camden by U.S. marshals and court personnel.
Deliberations have begun each day about 9:30 a.m. and have concluded about 4:30 p.m.
With few facts in dispute, deliberations appeared to be focused on the central question raised by prosecution and defense during the high-profile trial: intent.
Were the defendants committed to a jihad-inspired attack, or did paid FBI informants manipulate them into a conspiracy they had no intention of carrying out?
"It's an interesting case," said Karen Greenberg, editor of the Terrorist Trial Report Card, a study done by the Center on Law and Security at New York University Law School.
Greenberg is executive director of the center, which has tried to track every terrorism-related case brought by the Justice Department since Sept. 11, 2001. Through September of this year, these cases have involved nearly 700 defendants.
Greenberg described the Fort Dix investigation as one of the "more serious," saying an overzealous Justice Department has at times brought cases with substantially less evidence.
"It's a stronger charge than in a lot of high-profile cases we've seen," she said, comparing it to the Liberty City Seven case in Miami, which has twice resulted in hung juries.
In the Fort Dix case, she said, there were weapons and there was a plan, "however fantastical."
Indeed, the jurors have had to wrestle with the question of whether the government has proved that the five defendants did more than talk about waging jihad against the U.S. military.
In their closing arguments, prosecutors said there was more than enough evidence to support the charges, pointing to taped conversations in which defendants Mohamad Shnewer, 24, and Eljvir Duka, 25, talked about jihad; a map of Fort Dix supplied by defendant Serdar Tatar, 25; and the seven assault rifles purchased by defendants Dritan, 29, and Shain Duka, 27, from an FBI informant on the night they were arrested.
The Duka brothers, ethnic Albanians who entered the country illegally with their parents in the 1980s, are also charged with possession of weapons by illegal immigrants. A guilty verdict on that offense alone would probably set deportation action in motion.
Shnewer, a Jordanian-born U.S. citizen, also faces a weapons charge: attempted possession of firearms for criminal use. He was recorded repeatedly making volatile and seemingly incriminating comments, but most of those conversations occurred while he was driving in a car with FBI informant Mahmoud Omar and not in the presence of the other defendants.
Authorities allege he and Omar also conducted "reconnaissance" trips to scout Fort Dix and several other area military bases.
Tatar, a legal immigrant who came to this country from Turkey as a child, supplied a map of the base taken from his father's pizza shop, but in several taped conversations he appeared to counsel against violence.
Tatar also approached a Philadelphia police sergeant and told him that Omar had asked him for a map. He later spoke to an FBI agent about Omar. Jurors yesterday requested transcripts of the trial testimony of the police sergeant and the FBI agent who interviewed Tatar.
That was the first request from the jurors since Wednesday, when they asked to review transcripts from the testimony of a second FBI informant, Besnik Bakalli.
Attorneys for the Duka brothers pointed to other taped conversations in which Dritan Duka said he and his brothers, as shooting enthusiasts, wanted the guns for target practice. The defense also noted that Duka had passed on a chance to buy a grenade launcher and an M-60 machine gun from the same FBI informant.
Whether the conflicting explanations were enough to raise reasonable doubt in any juror's mind was the question that hung over the fourth-floor courtroom as deliberations lasted into the weekend.
In the Liberty City Seven case, seven members of an obscure Miami religious sect were charged with plotting to blow up the Sears Building in Chicago and several FBI offices.
A jury at the first trial found one defendant not guilty and could not reach a decision on the others.
In the second trial this year, a jury could not reach any decision. A third trial is planned for next month.
In the Fort Dix case, defense attorneys have offered an argument similar to the one used in the Miami case, contending that their clients were all talk but no action.