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Judge orders hearing on mental exam for terrorism convict

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A federal judge has scheduled a hearing for next week to get results of a competency exam for a man who wants to drop an appeal of his conviction and 20-year sentence for aiding terrorists.

Lawyers for Mahamud Said Omar had asked for the evaluation, saying they questioned whether their client understood what he was doing when he said he wanted to drop his appeal.

In June, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis -- who had expressed concerns about Omar's mental state -- ordered Steven Norton, a Rochester psychologist, to examine Omar and report back on what he found.

Davis scheduled a hearing on those findings for Sept. 3.

Omar, 47, of Minneapolis, was convicted last year of aiding the terrorist group al-Shabaab, which is active in Omar's native Somalia. In May, Davis sentenced the former janitor to 20 years in prison.

In sentencing Omar, Davis ordered his attorneys to file a notice of appeal with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, saying later that the case had important issues that should be reviewed.

The lawyers filed the notice, but before they could file the actual appeal, Omar told them he didn't want to challenge his conviction or sentence.

The defense lawyers sought a hearing in front of Davis, saying they wanted to make sure Omar was competent to waive his right to appeal. The judge held the hearing in June, and in rambling answers punctuated by sobs, wild gestures and profanity, Omar told the judge he wanted to drop the appeal.

Then he said he wanted to appeal. A few minutes later, he said he didn't.

Mahamud Said Omar. Photo courtesy of the Omar family.

"I haven't heard anything that's rational for him not to appeal. Is there something I'm missing?" an exasperated Davis eventually asked defense attorney Jon Hopeman.

"I cannot provide any further clarity," Hopeman replied.

Family members had said that Omar had long suffered from medical problems, including hallucinations and seizures, and a lawyer who represented him in the past said he was mentally ill.

Davis told Norton that his evaluation must include a report on Omar's history and present symptoms, as well as the results of psychological, psychiatric and medical tests.

Norton's curriculum vita says he was a "foreign service officer-psychologist" at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, from August 2011 to September 2012, providing "general psychological counseling, critical incident stress debriefings, trauma counseling and training to U.S. civilian and military personnel working in Afghanistan," as well as to Afghan citizens on occasion.

Omar had worked as a janitor at a Minneapolis mosque. At his trial, government witnesses said he had attended a lunch at which young men discussed traveling to Somalia to fight for al-Shabaab, an Islamic

The terror group, since merged with al-Qaida, has waged guerilla war for control of Somalia. It once governed much of the southern part of the country, as well as parts of the capital of Mogadishu, but after years of concerted effort by African Union troops, its dominion has shrunk.

Mahamud Said Omar. (AP Photo/Family of Mohamud Said Omar, File)
extremist group.

Al-Shabaab's recruitment extended to the Twin Cities, which has the largest population of Somali refugees in the U.S. An FBI investigation found that more than 20 young men from Minnesota had traveled to Africa to join the group.

Some died. Others were charged with aiding terrorists, and those who returned to the U.S. were taken into custody.

Eighteen men were charged in the investigation; Omar was the only one to take his case to trial. Ten of those charged remain fugitives, and two of them are believed dead.

At Omar's trial, witnesses claimed the man showed up at an al-Shabaab safe house in Somalia and provided money to buy a couple of AK-47s.

Jurors found him guilty. Prosecutors sought a 50-year sentence, but Davis gave him 20.

David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.


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