Accused Terrorists Get `N.Y.' Defense

Everything from mobster allusions to clothesline wisdom, all delivered in Brooklyn dialect

THE New York ``sedition trial'' of 12 Middle Eastern men may not have the celebrity lawyers who that are defending O.J. Simpson, but it's clear from the start, the defense lawyers have their own New York character.

Defending Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind Muslim cleric accused of masterminding a plot to blow up New York landmarks, is Lynn Stewart, assisted by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Ms. Stewart, a lawyer of considerable talents, has a way of appealing to a Manhattan jury. With her New York accent, she comes across as an attorney version of Mrs. Goldberg, the 1950s TV character, played by Gertrude Berg, who dispensed wisdom from her clothesline on the Lower East Side.

When Ms. Stewart speaks to the jury, she sounds like a woman who can tell chicken soup from a bad alibi.

At the end of her opening remarks, she told the jury that there was nothing new about the sheik calling for the death of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's leader. ``He's been doing that for 18 years,'' she concluded, implying that making death threats to a nation's leader is part of free speech.

There is attorney John Jacobs, defending Mohammed Saleh, who used to run a gasoline station in Yonkers and is now charged with providing the fuel for potential bombs. Mr. Jacobs seems like a lawyer who might be just as comfortable defending an organized-crime family.

In fact, he suggested the government's grouping of the alleged conspirators together produced ``the Gambino family of the Jihad''; and he suggested the sheik is the ``John Gotti'' of the case. These are images every New Yorker would know from reading the tabloids.

As Jacobs moved into his presentation, he became increasingly excited and would point to the prosecutors when he wanted to indicate something bad had happened to his client. In fact, he came up with yet another new defense theory about the case: The FBI set the whole thing up so it could wrap up open cases against these groups. The defense plans to quiz FBI agents on this theory.

``If the government doesn't call them, we'll call them,'' he bellowed. Yes, the FBI would be on trial.

How much of this impressed the jury is hard to tell. Research shows that 3 out of 4 jury members tend to make up their minds about a defendant's guilt or innocence at the start of a trial, before hearing all the evidence.

That may account for why the defense attorneys spent time trying to soften the image of their clients, some of whom are wearing Middle Eastern robes at their trial. Stewart explained that the sheik's hat was red because those were the colors of his university in Cairo.

The jury will no doubt be waiting to hear some evidence - especially the testimony of the government informant Emad Salem. In the opening statement, prosecutor Robert Khuzami admitted that the government had paid Mr. Salem $1 million. And, he warned, Salem had lied under oath before - in a civil case involving an automobile accident.

``You will hear a lot of things you won't like,'' he cautioned, but added, ``look for corroboration.''

There is no question that Salem is going to have an interesting time during cross examination. Defense attorney Roger Stavis, who appears ready to contest every point, suggested a truth test: ``Would you buy a used car from this man?''

That was the nice part.

Another defense attorney, Anthony Ricco, called Salem a ``hustler.'' Jacobs, referring to the old opera homily ``the opera's not over till the fat lady sings,'' called Salem ``the million-dollar fat lady.''

Of course lawyers have some literary license during opening arguments. In this case, it's a very New York literary license.

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