The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to take the case of a Muslim defendant in Colorado whose lawyer was barred from questioning a prospective juror who, during jury selection, expressed concern that he might be biased against Muslims.
The trial judge refused to allow the defense lawyer to closely question the prospective juror about his possible anti-Muslim prejudice. The judge also refused a request that the individual be excluded from the jury.
Instead, the man became one of 12 jurors who heard evidence in a trial infused with anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim themes and comments, according to court documents.
The defendant, Homaidan Al-Turki, was convicted of having unlawful sexual contact with a live-in housekeeper, of failing to pay her for all her work, and for keeping her in slave-like conditions. He was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
The Supreme Court decision not to hear the case leaves Mr. Turki’s conviction in place.
An impartial jury?
Turki’s lawyers had appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the trial judge’s actions violated their client’s constitutional right to an impartial jury.
In their petition to the high court, they said judges must allow trial lawyers to closely question prospective jurors whenever there is a “significant likelihood” that racial or some other invidious prejudice might influence the juror’s deliberations.
Lawyers with the Colorado attorney general’s office had urged the high court to reject the appeal. They argued that the juror in question did not express actual bias, but only raised a hypothetical concern.
The Colorado brief suggests that the juror may have been attempting to get himself thrown off the jury because he had an upcoming important business trip.
At issue in the trial was whether Turki engaged in routine sexual abuse of his housekeeper and treated her like a slave. Prosecutors say Turki paid her $1,500 for her entire stay in the US. They calculated that under the minimum wage she should have been paid more than $96,000 for the last three years of work.
Turki is a national of Saudi Arabia who moved to the US in 1995 with his wife and children and the housekeeper. He was a PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Colorado and ran an Islamic bookshop.
At some point in 2001 or 2002, federal agents began to monitor his activities, according to court documents. Despite the ongoing surveillance, he was not charged with a crime.
Focus shifts to the housekeeper
Then in 2004, the government discovered that Turki had a live-in housekeeper from Indonesia and that her work visa had expired. The housekeeper, also a Muslim, was jailed and interrogated about Turki’s activities. She was threatened with deportation.
According to Turki’s lawyers, the housekeeper repeatedly denied suggestions by the agents that her employer had committed crimes. Then, after nearly five months, she alleged that she had been sexually abused by Turki and that he had refused to pay her for work.
The next day, she signed an application for a new US work visa, according to Turki’s lawyers. The government granted the application, allowing her to continue to live and work in the US.
The case was turned over to state prosecutors, who charged Turki with aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, extortion, and false imprisonment.
Turki’s lawyers say state prosecutors sought to use fear of Muslims and post-9/11 anti-Islamic prejudice among the jurors to help win a conviction.
One prosecution witness was portrayed as an expert in Islamic culture and women’s issues. The witness offered a harsh critique of the treatment of women in Muslim countries and informed the jury that her opinion was derived in part from familiarity with the family of Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda terrorist leader.
In his closing argument, the prosecutor referred to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, noting that the live-in housekeeper was so isolated in the Turki home that she was unaware of the 9/11 attacks until much later after they took place.
Defense lawyers argued that the housekeeper lied about the sexual assaults after months of prodding by federal agents. In return for her testimony against her former employer, she received a work visa.
The jury acquitted Turki of kidnapping and sexual assault. He was convicted of false imprisonment, extortion, and the lesser offense of unlawful sexual contact.
A friend of the court brief filed on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia argued that Colorado prosecutors “conspicuously [played] to the jury’s anti-Arab/anti-Muslim bias throughout the trial.” It added that the state’s case was organized around a theme to incite bias, emphasizing cultural differences.