By Daniel Lovering
BOSTON (Reuters) - Lawyers for a Massachusetts man convicted a year and a half ago of conspiring to support al Qaeda have claimed that prosecutors prejudiced the jury with videos of beheadings and that the judge who sentenced him violated his right to free speech.
Tarek Mehanna was found guilty in December 2011 on seven counts that included providing material support to terrorists, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country and lying to law enforcement officers.
He was sentenced by U.S. District Judge George O'Toole in April, 2012 to 17-1/2 years in prison.
Mehanna's appeal began on Tuesday, with his attorneys charging that his conviction and sentencing were the result of "overwhelming prejudice" stemming from evidence that included videos of beheadings. Their client, they argued, had merely watched the videos years earlier.
"The purpose of the evidence was to frighten the jury, and it worked," said defense attorney Sabin Willett. "This was the theme, the drumbeat of the trial."
At trial, prosecutors had said that Mehanna, who holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, answered a call to action from Osama bin Laden to fight U.S. soldiers.
They said he traveled to Yemen in 2004 to seek terrorism training, but never received it, and planned to travel to Iraq to fight U.S. troops. They also accused him of translating videos and texts from Arabic to English and distributing them on the Internet to further al Qaeda's cause.
Defense attorneys had countered that Mehanna was "a typical American kid" trying to learn about his Muslim heritage by studying Islamic law and translating classical texts. He traveled to Yemen to visit schools where he hoped to study, they said.
Willett, the defense attorney, said on Tuesday that when he returned to the United States from Yemen, Mehanna simply did a lot of talking and proselytizing, "which he's allowed to do under the First Amendment."
More than two years after his return to the United States, he made offensive remarks about a video, "expressing his anger in words, which is his birthright," the attorney said.
Willett also challenged the chronology of events presented by the government and said the only thing Mehanna had been asked to translate was a "boring" religious text that had nothing to do with violence.
He said the jury had been "infected with prejudice" and a "conflation of conspiracies."
Prosecutor Liza Collery said the evidence was brought for "a variety of purposes," and that "propaganda was critical to these crimes" because Mehanna had used it to radicalize others.
She said Mehanna had been portrayed by his attorneys as a scholarly man seeking enlightenment, but that the evidence showed otherwise.
Mehanna, a U.S. citizen from Sudbury, Massachusetts, maintained his innocence at his sentencing at U.S. District Court in Boston last year, telling the judge he "never plotted to kill Americans at shopping malls or anywhere else."
The judge said he was troubled by Mehanna's lack of remorse and sentenced him to 17-and-a-half years behind bars followed by seven years of supervised release. The maximum penalty was life in prison.
(Editing by Chris Francescani; Editing by Alden Bentley, Bernard Orr)