BOSTON (AP) — A federal appeals court upheld a Massachusetts man's 2011 conviction of trying to help al-Qaida, saying Wednesday that the trial court balanced national security concerns and constitutional freedoms in an emotionally charged case.
Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury received a fair trial when he was convicted of four terror-related charges and three charges of lying to authorities, a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found. Mehanna was sentenced to 17 1/2 years in federal prison, which the court also upheld.
"Terrorism is the modern-day equivalent of the bubonic plague: It is an existential threat," the court said, adding that the case required the trial court "to patrol a fine line between national security concerns and forbidden encroachments on constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and association."
Prosecutors said during Mehanna's trial that he traveled to Yemen for training in a terrorist camp and intended to go to Iraq to fight U.S. soldiers. When that failed, they said, he returned to the United States and disseminated materials online promoting violent jihad.
Mehanna's lawyers said he didn't provide any tangible support to al-Qaida, and his online activities were protected free speech.
Among the evidence challenged in Mehanna's appeal, argued before the appeals judges in July, were terrorism-related images that prosecutors introduced to show Mehanna's beliefs.
Mehanna's appeal attorney Sabin Willett said prosecutors prejudiced the jury with 28 images of the World Trade Center in flames on Sept. 11, 2001, and terrorism-related videos, as well as repeated references to Osama bin Laden.
A message was left for Willett on Wednesday.
The appeals court agreed with prosecutors' argument that the use of the images and video was justified. The court acknowledged "terrorism-related evidence is often emotionally charged," but said "much of this emotional overlay is directly related to the nature of the crimes."
"Cases like this one present a formidable challenge to the parties and to the trial court: The charged crimes are heinous, the evidentiary record is vast, the legal issues are sophisticated, and the nature of the charges ensures that any trial will be electric. In this instance, all concerned rose to meet this formidable challenge," the court said.