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Underwear bomber trial: Will it shed light on American cleric killed in Yemen?

The trial of accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is set to begin Tuesday. Will testimony support Obama's contention that slain cleric Anwar al-Awlaki 'directed' the failed plot?

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As the plane prepared to land, Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom. When he returned to his seat he pulled a blanket over himself. Prosecutors say that’s when he tried to detonate the bomb. The device caught fire but did not explode.

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The Obama administration was criticized for its initial handling of the case. Some observers said Abdulmutallab was advised too quickly of his right to remain silent and his right to obtain the advice of counsel. These analysts believe he should have been immediately designated an enemy combatant and transferred to military custody for harsh interrogations.

Others say federal agents were able to quickly obtain significant information without jeopardizing his eventual prosecution in federal court.

According to court documents, Abdulmutallab provided FBI agents with details about the alleged bombing plot during a 50-minute interview prior to his being advised of his Miranda rights. Later, after he was given the Miranda warnings, he stopped talking.

Abdulmutallab and his stand-by lawyer, Anthony Chambers, argued in pretrial motions that information from the 50-minute interview should not be used as evidence against the defendant at trial because it was obtained in violation of his Miranda rights.

They said the statements were involuntary and made when Abdulmutallab lacked a clear state of mind. He was being treated for extensive burns and had been administered 300 micrograms of the painkiller fentanyl.

Two rulings on Miranda

US District Judge Nancy Edmunds rejected the motion, ruling that the FBI agents were “fully justified” in questioning Abdulmutallab before advising him of his rights. She found the actions fell within a public safety exception to the Miranda rule.

“The agents feared that there could be additional, imminent aircraft attacks in the United States and elsewhere in the world,” she wrote in her order.

She noted that one of the agents and a nurse at the hospital testified at an earlier hearing that Abdulmutallab appeared alert and lucid. “Defendant told [the agent] that he was not in pain, that he felt fine, and that he understood that the agents needed to ask him some questions,” she wrote.

After obtaining the favorable Miranda ruling, prosecutors asked the judge to grant them another significant advantage at the trial. They wanted Judge Edmunds to bar Abdulmutallab and Mr. Chambers from questioning the FBI agents about whether they advised the defendant of his Miranda rights before he made his statements.

The government’s motion acknowledges that it is “common” for federal agents to be asked and to answer such questions during a trial. “In general, such questions are appropriate and non-ojectionable,” the prosecutors wrote. “In the present case, however, such questions are objectionable.”

“If defendant is allowed at trial to examine agents as to whether he was advised of such rights, the jury will be misled into thinking that agents did something impermissible by not so advising him,” the motion says.

Judge Edmunds granted the motion.

The judge’s order limits the ability of the jury to understand the totality of the circumstances surrounding the incriminating statements Abdulmutallab made to FBI agents. Part of each juror’s job is to decide how much weight to give to every piece of evidence or testimony introduced at a trial.

Incriminating statement at hospital

Abdulmutallab’s statement to the agents wasn’t his only incriminating comment.

When Abdulmutallab was admitted into the hospital with severe burns after the failed bombing, he was asked as part of the routine admissions process whether he ever had thoughts of hurting himself or others.

According to court documents, he told the nurse, no. The nurse responded by asking whether his attempted bombing earlier that day was an attempt to hurt himself or others.

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