By Jamal Abdulahi, Star Tribune
Trials for the seven Somali teens arrested for attempting to join ISIS are scheduled to begin in September. The suspects could spend years in prison if convicted. Defense attorneys have said little outside of court, but one thing is certain: The deck is stacked in favor of the prosecutor.
When Reverend Al Sharpton eulogized the late defense attorney Jonnie Cochran, he told mourners: “With all due respect to you, Brother Simpson, when we heard about the acquittal, we weren’t clapping for O.J., we were clapping for Johnnie. We were clapping because for decades our brothers, our cousins, our uncles had to stand in the well with no one to stand up for them. And finally a black man came and said, ‘If it don’t fit you must acquit,’”
Sharpton went on. “Johnnie Cochran was to this era what Thurgood Marshall was to the era before.”
Sharpton was making a broader point about the American judicial system. The difference between walking free and serving lengthy prison sentences depends largely on the rigor of the defense.
And of course, quality of defense is often tied to wealth or lack thereof. O.J. Simpson was enormously wealthy.
The seven Somali-American teenagers are standing in a deep well alone. The current political atmosphere in America makes it nearly impossible to defend charges of conspiracy to provide “material support” to a designated terrorist organization. The defendants’ identities only deepen the well. The combination of being black, Muslim and immigrant amounts to three strikes and you’re out in post-September 11 America.
These teenagers and their immigrant families are not wealthy. In addition to the most serious charge of conspiracy, two of the defendants are charged with financial fraud by resorting to withdrawals from their college financial aid funds to allegedly finance their travel plans. This underscores the point: The defendants can’t afford a Cochran-style defense.
When defendants are not able to afford attorneys, the government provides a public defender. The problem is, the federal public defender system is plagued by chronic budget shortfalls, including a $52 million in 2013.
Jamal Abdulahi is an independent analyst. He writes about politics, economy and Minnesota’s Somali-American community. He also blogs at www.minnesotacivic.com.
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