Three Albanian-born men of Cherry Hill and two friends who were convicted in 2008 of plotting an attack on Fort Dix are back in court in Camden.
After years of national attention and controversy, a federal judge has given the “Fort Dix Five” one last shot to fight for a new trial.
The case started nine years ago at a Circuit City near Cherry Hill.
One of the men brought a videotape there to be made into DVDs. It contained footage of a group of friends skiing, riding horses and shooting assault rifles in the Poconos. The Circuit City store clerk found it disturbing and called the FBI. That’s when the investigation was born.
In court records, the government said the men were yelling “God is great” in Arabic and calling for jihad while shooting in a “militia-like style” at a firing range,” though other reports have called that characterization into question.
From that point, the FBI hired informants who befriended the men and covertly recorded hours of conversations during which, investigators said, touched on a plot to kill military personnel at Fort Dix.
“These homegrown terrorists can prove to be as dangerous as any known group, if not more so. They operate under the radar. Today, we dodged a bullet. In fact, when you look at the type of weapons that this group was trying to purchase, we may have dodged a lot of bullets,” said FBI Agent J.P. Weiss when the men were arrested in 2007.
A federal jury convicted the men of conspiring to kill U.S. servicemen, and they were sentenced to life in prison.
At issue now, though, is why exactly they didn’t testify during their trial. They’re now saying they wanted to speak but were blocked at the time by their attorney, Michael Huff.
Dritan “Tony” Duka, 37, said his beliefs should not have precluded his chance to testify in his own trial. His two brothers and co-defendants, Eljivir and Shain Duka, are making similar pleas in the appeal hearing that began Wednesday.
“Had I thought that my lawyer was prepared, I would have insisted on taking the witness stand and testified,” Shain Duka said in a petition to the court.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Huff said they talked often during the nearly three-month trial about whether the defendants should testify.
“It was a very, very fluid process over the course of months, as to do you want to testify, should you testify,” Huff said. “We had those discussions from day one.”
Huff said ultimately, though, the men agreed not to take the stand after he advised against it. He said it “would have been a disaster” considering some of the men often brought up conversations about “the anti-Christ,” and suspicions that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job.
The new defense team for the men took pains to show that their former lawyer was disorganized, incompetent and actively blocked his client from testifying. For instance, Huff was grilled on precisely how many times he made jail visits and why he didn’t prepare a script for his client to take the stand in the event that might occur.
Outside of the courtroom, a few dozen held up signs: “Justice for the Ft. Dix Five. Free them now.”
Lumi Khja, a cousin of the three brothers, was among the supporters.
“If they testified, and tell their side of the story, they would’ve had more innocence shed on the case. But they were misguided by the lawyers. They were misrepresented,” Khja said.
Other supporters, including Maha Hilal of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, said a new trial is justified because authorities entrapped the men.
“The issue came about when FBI informants became involved,” Hilal said. “The fact is that these individuals were Muslim, and the only reason they were criminalized is because they were Muslim. Post-9/11, in many of these similar court cases, there is a lot of institutionalized Islamophobia.”
The Fort Dix Five case has also been grabbing political headlines recently.
On the campaign trail, Gov. Chris Christie has touted the convictions as proof that he has the best chops among the slate of GOP contenders for president to combat homegrown terrorists. At the time of the trial Christie was New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney. Despite not being directly involved in the investigation, Christie has taken credit for it, calling it one of the “biggest terrorism cases in the world.”
Whether a new trial is called for will be up to U.S District Judge Robert Kluger after attorneys file additional briefs. Kluger gave both sides until February 16.