A September trial for the five remaining defendants accused of plotting an armed attack on Fort Dix remains likely after the men appeared in U.S. District Court yesterday for a status conference.
Judge Robert Kugler had been pushing for a speedy trial in Camden ever since the men were arrested in May 2007.
He initially said he hoped to resolve the case in 2007, but several issues forced him to push back that time frame.
"Things are good?" Kugler asked yesterday. "We're still on track for Sept. 29?" The attorneys agreed they would be prepared to begin jury selection that day.
As many as 1,500 summonses could be mailed this summer to potential jurors, Kugler said. He said he hoped to get 500 potential jurors to the courthouse, where a long questionnaire would whittle them down to about 80.
The questions will not be made public until after the jury is seated, the judge said, but the two sides did discuss one of them in court yesterday. Potential jurors will be asked what words they use in private "to describe people who practice the Islamic faith."
All five defendants, who have pleaded not guilty, are foreign-born Muslims. Accused of plotting a paramilitary attack on Fort Dix inspired by al-Qaeda propaganda are Mohamed Shnewer, a U.S. citizen born in Jordan; Serdar Tatar, a legal U.S. resident born in Turkey; and Cherry Hill brothers Shain, Eljvir and Dritan Duka, all illegal immigrants from the former Yugoslavia.
A sixth man, Agron Abdullahu, was sentenced in March to 20 months in prison for allowing the Duka brothers to fire his guns during trips to the Poconos.
Abdullahu, a refugee from Kosovo whose family settled in Atlantic County, has been in custody since his 2007 arrest and could be released from prison by the end of the year.
Yesterday's hearing came on the day that accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed appeared for the first time before a military tribunal. Unlike him and the other detainees at Guantanamo, who were captured abroad and are being prosecuted in the military justice system, the Fort Dix defendants were investigated on U.S. soil by the Justice Department, and are being prosecuted in federal court.
Kugler has ordered all pretrial motions to be filed this month with the hopes of settling them by the end of summer.
Defense attorneys are expected to ask for evidence to be excluded from the trial, and they could ask that the case be moved elsewhere because of the intense publicity.
Kugler also jokingly asked the attorneys if they would be well-rested for the trial and if they planned to take vacations this summer.
That prompted Eljvir Duka to speak up from the jury box, where the defendants were seated.
"Judge, can you look at us and ask if we can go on vacation?" he said, smiling broadly. "At least to the rec yard."