Advocates for Keonna Thomas, the North Philadelphia woman accused by the federal government of attempting to join and martyr herself for the Islamic State in Syria, say prosecutors have outlined a thin case.
In April 2015, a federal grand jury found that there was sufficient evidence to indict Thomas on a single count of providing support to an overseas terrorist organization.
Calling that indictment “vague and nonspecific,” public defender Kathleen Gaughan is asking prosecutors for more details about their charges to avoid a surprise a trial.
“The indictment, as it currents stands, accuses Ms. Thomas of, at most, attempting to wed a purported ISIL fighter and desiring to live in ISIL-controlled territory,” Gaughan wrote, saying that those alone don’t constitute federal crimes.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams has responded that the government has furnished the defense team with plenty of information, including two hard drives, a cell phone and a computer containing specific Skype and Twitter communication, some of it between Thomas and what federal authorities describe as a Somali-based jihadist.
“The government is under no obligation to provide Thomas with a fully integrated explanation of its trial theory and expected trial presentation,” Williams wrote in response.
A hearing on Gaughan’s motion demanding more information from federal investigators is scheduled for May 12 at 10 a.m. in the federal courthouse in Philadelphia.
Thomas, 31, who has been in federal custody since she was arrested 13 months ago, is accused of providing “material support” to terrorists through her communications on Twitter, where she called herself “Young Lioness.”
Prosecutors portray Thomas as a terrorist sympathizer who told an overseas ISIS fighter that it “would be amazing” to die fighting for ISIS in attacks known as “martyrdom operations,” according to investigators.
Thomas, who had planned to travel to Spain, also had researched how to travel by bus from Barcelona to Istanbul, a common transit point for people trying to slip over the border to Syria.
In filings, her Gaughan has argued that Thomas should have the right to speak freely on any topic and “associate with others for the purpose exercising her religion freely.”
In December, U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson refused to toss Thomas’ charges, denying an argument that the First Amendment should protect Thomas’ speech.
However, in the latest filing, Gaughan, wants to know whether the government intends to show that Thomas was planning to participate in attacks under the banner of ISIS. The charging documents do not say Thomas had intentions of taking part in an attack.
Thomas is among more than 70 defendants who have been charged with ISIS-related activity stemming from social media communication. Critics claim that federal prosecutors have used “material support” laws in a way that is overly broad, punishing innocent people and criminalizing unpopular comments.
Several attempts to talk to Thomas’ mother, Julia Thomas, were unsuccessful. Knocks on her family’s North 10th Street rowhome went unanswered.
Jury selection is set to start May 23 before a scheduled June 1 trial date.