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Judge orders mental exam for sobbing Somali terror convict

Wednesday, June 12, 2013
By David Hanners

A judge wants a competency evaluation to see if a former janitor understands what will happen if he drops the appeal of his conviction and 20-year sentence for aiding the terrorist group al-Shabaab.

Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis' decision to have Mahamud Said Omar examined by an expert came at the end of an hour-long hearing Wednesday in which a sometimes-emotional Omar alternately said he wanted to drop the appeal, then didn't, then did again.

"I think I'm going to finish my 20 years," Omar, 47, eventually told the judge.

Omar's lawyers have questioned his mental state, and family members have said he has suffered from seizures and other problems. Answering questions from Davis, the defendant often launched into lengthy answers punctuated by sobs, wild gestures and, a few times, profanity.

At one point, Davis took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes and fell silent for a few moments.

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

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

The judge ordered a competency evaluation and told both sides to agree on who would perform it. After it is completed, the hearing will reconvene.

Last month, Davis sentenced Omar for conspiracy and aiding and abetting al-Shabaab, a terror group active in Omar's birthplace of Somalia. The Minneapolis man is among 18 men charged in the FBI's investigation into attempts by Somalis in the Twin Cities to provide support to the group.

A jury convicted him on five counts last year. Prosecutors sought a 50-year sentence.

When he sentenced Omar, Davis told Hopeman and co-counsel Andrew Birrell to appeal the case to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. But the day after they filed their notice of appeal, Omar told them he wanted to drop it.

The defense lawyers sought the hearing to determine if Omar is competent enough to understand the impact of his decision, and whether he is properly waiving his right to appeal.

Omar's family has said he has suffered from hallucinations and other ailments. Lawyers who have represented him in the past questioned his ability to understand the proceedings; one said he was mentally ill.

After last month's sentencing -- in which Omar spoke for nearly an hour in a rambling soliloquy -- Birrell said the man "has sort of had an ongoing issue with his mental health."

The judge called Omar and Hopeman to the podium and told the defendant that his case had many complicated issues and that he had a right to have an appeals court review the judge's rulings, both during the trial and at sentencing.

He asked Omar if he wanted to say anything. The man pulled a sheet of paper out of his dark gray Anoka County jail jumpsuit and began to speak, through an interpreter.

Omar said he was worried that if he appealed and lost, Davis might give him an even longer sentence.
"If I lose the case, this sentence is for a lifetime, and I want a future," he said. "I wish to finish my sentence of 20 years."

"In 30 years of being a judge, I have never punished someone for taking an appeal and coming back and being re-sentenced," Davis told him.

"There are so many issues in your case that are important for a higher court to review," the judge said. "If you do not go through with your appeal, those issues will never be able to be raised."

As the discussion continued, Omar began to sob and had to sit down. The judge ordered a brief recess, and when court resumed, Omar -- speaking in broken English this time -- launched into a profanity-laced homily (he claimed he was quoting his lawyers, who he complained about, as well as one of his brothers) but then said that he was willing to appeal his case.

"I think we've solved our problem," Davis said.

The solution was short-lived. A few moments later, as the judge asked him if he really understood what was going on, Omar changed his mind again.

"I don't want any appeal," he said. When the judge asked him why, he replied, "Because I'm sick."
Omar explained that if he appealed, he'd get even sicker fretting over the case.

Hopeman told the judge that he and Omar's family and an imam had "spent a lot of time" trying to persuade the man to pursue his appeal, to no avail.

"I'm wondering if he shouldn't be evaluated to see if this was a rational decision," Hopeman told the judge. Davis agreed.

At last year's trial, government witnesses claimed Omar had attended a lunch at which young men discussed traveling to Africa to join al-Shabaab's fight against Somalia's then-transitional government. He showed up at an al-Shabaab safe house in Somalia and also provided money to buy a couple of AK-47s, witnesses told jurors.

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



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