Posted on Sun, Jan. 25, 2009

Fort Dix juror: 'They were going to do it'

By Troy Graham

Inquirer Staff Writer
The 12 jurors in the Fort Dix terrorism case had no doubt that the five foreign-born Muslims on trial had intended to carry out an attack on the Army base.

> "Every one of us was convinced that, in time, they were going to do it," one of the jurors said in an interview.

> That juror - officially Juror No. 3 - last week provided the first glimpse inside the deliberations that ended one of the country's premier domestic-terrorism cases.

> After its verdicts Dec. 22, the anonymously chosen panel released a short statement saying any juror who wished to speak would reach out to reporters. Juror No. 3, a South Jersey grandmother, contacted The Inquirer after the holidays.

> Her recollections were aided by her courtroom notes and a journal she wrote at night during the nine-week trial. Juror No. 3, whose identity The Inquirer has agreed to withhold, said she hoped to use them to write her own account.

> Lawyers for the five defendants described their clients - who ranged in age from 22 to 28 when arrested - as alienated young men who liked to talk tough about jihad but never planned to harm anyone.

> The jurors rendered a split verdict on the two most serious charges, which some legal experts interpreted as a compromise in an ambiguous case.

> Not so, said Juror No. 3.

> She said that from the beginning of deliberations, the panel was in near agreement that the defendants had taken serious steps toward an armed attack on the Burlington County base.

> Prosecutors said the men, all raised in Cherry Hill, had conducted surveillance of military installations, gathered maps, sought weapons, and trained at a firing range in the Poconos. But they acknowledged that the men had not formulated a final plan of attack.

> New antiterrorism laws and tactics were created after 9
11 to combat the specter of homegrown terrorism, but federal prosecutors have brought relatively few cases to court. Some experts called the Fort Dix case an important test for the FBI's strategy of arrests to disrupt plots before they are set in motion.

> That could make the Fort Dix juror's post-trial feedback - rare in most criminal trials - especially valuable.

> The verdicts came after more than five days of deliberations. Mohamad Shnewer, Serdar Tatar and brothers Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka all were convicted of conspiracy, which carries a potential life sentence. Appeals from all five are expected.

> After some debate, the panel agreed that the defendants' plan had not progressed far enough to convict them of attempted murder of U.S. soldiers. The men were acquitted of that charge.

> Only Tatar's conspiracy conviction caused the jurors any hesitation.

> The Turkish-born 7-Eleven manager provided a map of Fort Dix to an FBI informant, but was heard on wiretaps counseling his codefendants against violence.

> "Most of us had some . . . sympathy for Serdar Tatar," the juror said. "We couldn't quite figure him out. He seemed to have two personalities, and he seemed to be caught between two cultures."

> She talked about what a terrific burden it was to decide the fate of the men, several of whom had children and large extended families in court each day.

> She said the jury instructions at the end of the trial had helped ground the jurors' decisions in the law and the evidence.

> "We felt that we had to be fair, and we were. We really, really were," she said. "Lots of us were really feeling the pressure. . . . We didn't want to go just with our gut feelings."

> She said the jurors had gotten along well, particularly after District Judge Robert B. Kugler assured them that they would not elect a foreman and would share the burden equally.

> "Honest to God, it was the most amazing thing to see, 12 strangers coming together in this unified thing," she said. "It worked. It worked beautifully."

> The defendants, who met while attending Cherry Hill High School West, were accused of plotting an attack on Fort Dix inspired largely by watching violent jihadist videos downloaded from the Internet.

> The jurors watched dozens of those videos, taken off computer hard drives belonging to Shnewer and Eljvir Duka.

> Juror No. 3 has a son who served two tours with the Marines in Iraq, where he was wounded by shrapnel and received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. One video in particular, called Baghdad Sniper, was difficult for her to watch, she said.

> In one scene, a sniper shoots an American serviceman in the back, the same place her son was wounded.

> "I thought I was seeing my son getting hit," she said.

> Despite the gruesome footage, she said, the jurors kept their emotions from affecting their judgment.

> "These men on trial did not do these things," she said. "They exposed themselves to that material."

> Much of the case was built on two FBI informants who infiltrated the group and recorded hundreds of hours of conversations.

> Defense attorneys mercilessly attacked the credibility of the main informant, Mahmoud Omar, who was paid about $240,000 for his cooperation and had been convicted of bank fraud.

> Although the defense description of Omar as a "con man" seemed apt, the juror said, the panel didn't have any problem accepting his testimony.

> Informants "have to be shady to get into what they have to get into," she said. "Get over it."

> On cross-examination, defense attorneys accused Omar of steering the conversations and goading their clients into making incriminating statements.

> "He sometimes had to move it along, but he did not entrap them," the juror said. "I think, without hesitation, what convicted these gentlemen was their own words."

> She said she was surprised that the defense "had nothing to say," putting on only a few hours of testimony.

> None of the defendants took the stand. But the juror said testifying "might have made a difference" only for Tatar.

> "None of us had a moment's hesitation as far as the Dukas or Mohamad Shnewer," she said.

> Tatar's attorney, Richard Sparaco, said attorneys can't know how jurors will react to a defendant's strategy.

> "The choice to testify or refrain from testifying is one of the most difficult decisions a defendant has to make," he wrote in an e-mail last week. "The hope, however idealistic, is that the jury will follow the court's instructions not to consider a defendant's decision not to take the stand."

> Throughout the trial, the jurors - who initially were allowed to go home at night - were blanketed with extraordinary security. They were careful not to learn each other's last names.

> Each morning, they met at one of two locations, where federal marshals loaded them into white vans with blacked-out windows for the drive to the courthouse in Camden. The jurors moved through the building in groups, always escorted by marshals.

> "Until the last day of deliberations, we said, 'This is like a movie,' We kept waiting for - what's that guy from 24?" she said, groping for the name of Kiefer Sutherland's character in the TV drama. "That's what it seemed like to us."

> After testimony and arguments ended, the jurors were sequestered at a South Jersey hotel. They fell into a routine of using mornings for "quiet time," for individual reading and research of the evidence. They debated after lunch.

> The jurors spent the first two days of deliberations sorting through a variety of weapons charges, primarily against the Dukas. They tackled those charges first because they were perceived to be the easiest to decide.

> Next, they turned to the attempted-murder charges. Juror No. 3 said that in an early poll, she had "strong feelings" that the defendants were guilty.

> "No one else felt that way," she said.

> The jurors dwelled on that count for a couple of days, she said. Once, when she mounted an argument to support a guilty verdict, another juror pointed out that she was citing evidence that proved conspiracy, not attempted murder.

> Juror No. 3 said she eventually agreed with the others to acquit on attempted murder.

> "When I was at ease with" the verdict, she said, "I could visually see everyone else was at ease with it."

> Finally, the jurors began talking about the conspiracy charges, and the debate centered on Tatar.

> He had given Omar a map of Fort Dix that his family kept in its pizzeria near the base, and he promised the informant, "I'm in. Honestly, I'm in."

> But Tatar also approached a Philadelphia police sergeant and told him that Omar had asked for the map. And in the recordings, he argued that an attack would be a "big problem for all Muslims in this country."

> The jurors decided that because Tatar had volunteered the map - and later lied to the FBI about it - he had to be a coconspirator.

> "The actions spoke louder than the words," Juror No. 3 said.

> In the end, she said, the jurors were proud of the job they had done.

> "When we gave the verdict and we got back to the jury room, everyone just lost it," she said. "There wasn't a dry eye in the room."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or