Trial of Trade Center Bombing Relies on Circumstantial Evidence
One defense attorney claims that client was misled by `evil genius' who fled after Trade Center bomb
NEW YORK — IT is an anniversary no one wants to remember. But, a year ago on Feb. 26, a powerful bomb killed six people, injured thousands, and caused millions of dollars in damage at New York City's World Trade Center.
In the same week of the anniversary, a jury will begin to decide the guilt or innocence of the men accused of planning the attack and planting the bomb.
The jury is expected to spend a lot of time mulling over the thousands of pages of testimony and evidence. The prosecution presented 207 witnesses and more than a thousand exhibits since opening arguments began on Oct. 4.
There are no witnesses who can point to the men and swear they planted the bombs. Instead, the prosecution has tried to prove with circumstantial evidence that the men were involved. Such cases are relatively common.
``This case is every drug case in one way or the other,'' says Gerard Lynch, former chief of the Criminal Division in the Southern District of New York and now a professor of law at Columbia University Law School.
In drug cases, says Mr. Lynch, ``There are a variety of players with different roles and evidence connecting the people.'' But this case is about a bomb.
On Feb. 15, a government prosecutor, Henry DePippo, wove together in his summation the strands of the case, explaining how the defendants related to each other and fit into the government's theory about the case. He began with Ahmad Ajaj, who tried to enter the United States with a fake passport. In his trip from Pakistan to the US, Mr. Ajaj traveled with Ramzi Yousef. Ajaj got caught by the US immigration authorities with a suitcase full of manuals on making bombs, but Mr. Yousef entered the country.
Once in the US, Yousef roomed with Mohammad Salameh in Jersey City, N.J. He became friends with Nidal Ayyad, a chemist, and Mahmud Abouhalima, a driver for a limousine service. The government alleges the men acquired the chemicals, rented storage space, and made the bomb in an apartment in Jersey City. The FBI says it found their fingerprints on bomb manuals and directions on destroying buildings.
Through the use of poster-size charts, Mr. DePippo showed how the men called each other, often using a telephone credit card - ``the co-conspirators' calling card.'' The calls were linked with their activity until finally, on Feb. 26, 1993, DePippo alleges, they loaded up a van with the explosives and moved the vehicle into the World Trade Center early in the morning.
The defense strategy throughout the trial has been to deny any involvement. Thus, courtroom observers were surprised on Feb. 16 when Robert Precht, the lawyer for Mr. Salameh, said his client was ``misled by a devious, evil, I'll say it, genius, a person who came to this country with a single mission to destroy American targets.'' The alleged evil genius was Yousef, who fled from the US the day of the bombing.
Despite this admission, Precht maintained that Salameh was not aware of the consequences of his actions. Precht also maintained that there was ``more than reasonable doubt'' that Salameh was not involved with the actual bombing and mixing of the chemicals for the bomb. But of all the defendants, the government seemed to have the most evidence against Salameh.
``Perhaps Precht's strategy was a concession to gain a degree of plausibility from the jury,'' says Robert Pugsley, a former prosecutor, now a professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.
Precht's strategy, says Don Garner, a professor of law at Southern Illinois University Law School, may mean the government's case is considered strong by the defense. ``The defense of blaming someone else who is not there inevitably winds up blaming the defendants who are there as well,'' he says.
Blaming other people is a fairly standard defense, says law professor Richard Uviller of Columbia University.
``They [defendants] tend to all shift the blame to each other and some absentee boss,'' he says. This is the reason why defendants don't like to be tried together, he adds.
Precht's strategy, says Lynch, is risky. ``You make those arguments when necessary and when it is the only strategy left,'' he says.