Jury Acquits Defendants in “Taliban” Case
It took seven years to come to trial, a month to try the case, but the jury was ready late Tuesday afternoon with their verdict after just over two days of deliberation.
As the verdicts were read, one by one, defendant by defendant, a wave of relief swept over the Niazi brothers and Qumar Ashraf for the first time in seven years.
Once again for these young men, still in their late 20s and early 30s, their future was again their own. It was not quite complete and total vindication. Of the charges remaining, Zafaruddin Niazi, the younger son, was convicted of a lesser included offense of assault, although the jury had acquitted him of the assault with a deadly weapon charge.
We believe that assault charge stemmed from a punch to the face. However, as the charge is a misdemeanor, there are questions by Mr. Niazi’s attorney Stewart Katz as to whether the statute of limitations has expired. Regardless, with a clean record, Mr. Niazi is looking at some sort of slap on the wrist, at most.
Compared to what Ashraf and the Niazi brothers faced after the grand jury had indicted them, this was a true sense of vindication.
Khialuddin Niazi, the father, remains in the ICU unit, having suffered an aortal aneurysm. His condition has improved and his sons felt that having the stress of the case off would help, as well.
What remains unclear is what the DA will now do with the father’s charges, as a retrial would take another year, the man is 71 and everyone else in the case has been acquitted. It does not seem logical to retry that case, but as we know, the DA has at least considered retrying a case where there was an 11-1 vote for acquittal
The jury seemed relieved as well, and almost the entire jury stayed behind to speak to the attorneys. They met with the brothers and Mr. Ashraf afterwards, and some spoke extensively with the Vanguard.
In short, they did not believe the witnesses who had come forward. They felt their stories conflicted too much. The injuries sustained did not seem to fit the charges. And they believed it was self-defense.
Sarajuddin Niazi told the Vanguard that on the night of the incident his father Khialuddin had gone over to talk with Aslum Maazouddin, the head of the Maazouddin family, and that the alleged victim Sayed Sayah, the most culpable body in all of this and the son-in-law of Maazouddin, had been there and had stabbed Khialuddin and tried to stab him and his younger brother Zafar as well.
Once again it appears that Deputy DA Robin Johnson has prosecuted the wrong individual. This is the third case we have seen her try before Judge Mock, and the third time we believe that the DA’s Office pressed charges against the wrong individual while the guilty party was let go.
From the prosecution’s perspective, On March 6, 2004, Sayed Sayah, a 47-year-old West Sacramento man from Afghanistan, took his truck to get detailing done locally. The business to which he took the truck was being operated by one of the defendants, Mohammed Qumar Ashraf, a Pakistani.
The two men did not know each other. In the truck, Mr. Sayah had an application form to work as an interpreter for US forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Sayah noticed when he got the truck back that the envelope containing the application had been opened.
He began speaking to Mr. Ashraf about those application papers, and the discussion became heated.
Learning that Mr. Sayah was Afghani, Mr. Ashraf mentioned the Niazi family who were close friends of his and also Afghani. Mr. Sayah said he knew the Niazis and that Khialuddin Niazi, the head of that family, was a coward for not having paid a debt he owed Sayah’s family.
In addition, during that discussion, Mr. Ashraf had allegedly told Mr. Sayah that he was a “bad Muslim” for wanting to help US forces in Afghanistan. According to Mr. Sayah, the Niazis are Taliban sympathizers. Mr. Sayah got his truck detailed and left the business.
Deputy DA Robin Johnson told the jury that Mr. Ashraf then passed on the information he’d learned to Sarajuddin Niazi, one of Khialuddin’s sons, who passed it on to the other son, Zafaruddin Niazi.
Later that night, Mr. Ashraf was told by Mr. Sarajuddin that there would be a meeting between the two heads of the respective families. Around 10 pm Mr. Sayah received a berating phone call from Mr. Khialuddin, in which Mr. Khialuddin told him that he would come and meet Mr. Sayah at a particular residence.
Shortly after midnight, a vehicle containing the defendants pulled up at the residence. Accordng to the DA, they exited the vehicles, got baseball bats out from the trunk of their vehicle and approached the house.
Zerguy Maazouddin, who was across the street with three friends, about to leave, was hit in the back of the head and lost consciousness. The prosecution’s version continues, saying Mr. Sayah was attacked in the doorway of the residence and beaten until he was severely injured and fell down unconscious. He then supposedly got to his feet again and was chased through the kitchen of the Maazouddin home, returned to the doorway of the home and collapsed unconscious again. The attackers then left the scene.
In her closing arguments, Deputy DA Robin Johnson argued that we heard from the alleged victim himself, Mr. Sayed Sayah, that Mr. Ashraf had hit him with a bat and that Mr. Sarajuddin Niazi had hit him in the face with something, though it had not been specified what that was. Ms Johnson recalled the testimony of Dr. Bair the physician, who had been in charge of treating the people involved in the event. She stated that the doctor noted Mr Sayah had a broken nose and laceration around his eye.
She stated, according to the doctor, that those injuries could have been caused by an hand striking Mr. Sayah’s face but that it was likely an object that caused the blunt force injuries. She stated that death can occur if a person is hit repeatedly with a baseball bat and that makes it deadly.
Dr Bair, the ER physician, testified and was strangely unwilling to rule out a baseball bat as the cause of Sayah’s facial injuries. Sayah had a lot of swelling and bruising, especially around his eyes, a cut below and above his right eye from impacts, and a broken nose. He had no broken bones around his eyes or face. “I’ve seen people kind of get hit by a train,” the doctor said, suggesting that a glancing blow from a bat would be consistent with Sayah’s injuries.
But then to have a glancing blow in each bruised area is rather ridiculously unlikely, even if Mr Sayah had been holding perfectly still each time. It seems much more likely that repeated punches to the face caused the injury, than a bat to the face, which would be expected to shatter bones not merely break them..
From the defense perspective, Sayed Sayah who’d gone to the auto detailing business on a recommendation had began speaking with Mr. Ashraf, who’d noticed a Muslim emblem hanging in Mr. Sayah’s truck. Learning that Mr. Sayah was Afghani, Mr. Ashraf mentioned he was close friends with the Niazi brothers, also Afghanis.
Mr. Sayah began to berate the elder Khialuddin Niazi for being dishonest and for not having paid a huge debt owed to Sayah’s father-in-law.
Later that evening, Mr. Ashraf, while hanging out with Zafar and Saraj Niazi, had reluctantly mentioned the man who’d come to his auto detail shop. Sarajuddin, the only defense witness to testify, had explained that he had come home from graduate school for the weekend, gone to study at the library with his brother Zarafuddin that day. After they’d finished, Saraj had contacted his old friend Ashraf to hang out, and both the brothers had gone over to Ashraf’s house in the early evening. After a short while, Ashraf had mentioned the man who’d come in to that auto detail shop and the accusations. Neither Saraj or Zafar knew who the man was. Zafar left early while Saraj continued to hang out at Ashraf’s house.
Later that night when Ashraf was giving Saraj a ride home later, Zafar called them to say that Khailuddin, their dad, knew who the man at the auto detail shop was and that they were to go to the Maazouddin home to discuss the incident. Zafar was to drive Khialuddin there and Saraj and Ashraf were to meet them there. Ashraf would be brought along as a witness to what Sayah had said to him.
Saraj testified that by the time he and Ashraf got there, Zafar and Khialuddin had arrived and gotten out. Saraj and Ashraf got out and Ashraf paid his respects to the elder Khialuddin. Then they walked towards the Maazouddin house and that there were people outside the house. Saraj saw Zerguy and his friends across the street and went over to them. By this time, Khialuddin had reached the driveway of the Maazouddin house where Sayah stood. Sayah, with his right arm, swung and struck Khialuddin in his side, stabbing him. Saraj said he saw his father Khialuddin stumble and fall to the ground. As he was about to run over there, he was slammed up against a car by Zerguy’s friend Armando. He punched Armando a few times in the head and Armando moved away. Saraj then ran towards his father and saw Zafar with a bat in his hands fending off Sayah who was holding a knife in his right hand and lunging with it. Zafar was standing in between Sayah and Khialuddin who was on the ground, having been stabbed. As Sayah lunged with the knife, Saraj manged to grab his right wrist and punched him repeatedly till Sayah fell to the ground. At that point, Saraj turned and ran to the car where Zafar was helping Khialuddin to get in. They drove a short distance to home and called 911 instead of trying to drive to the hospital.
Saraj said during his testimony that his two youngest brothers had been there and that they were in their mid-teens at the time. Saraj said he had not seen what they were doing while he was fighting with Sayah, but that they’d told him they had hit Zerguy
The problem with the case is that the Taliban charges and much of the rest of the case was based solely on the word of Mr. Sayah.
Mr. Katz, in his closing, argued that it is a charge based solely on Sayah’s word, the charge that the group who had gone to the home had not gone to talk and that they were supporters of the Taliban.
He argued that there were key individuals mentioned during the trial who the prosecution had not called to testify. That night, according to prosecution witnesses Zerguy and Jamaal Maazouddin, their father Aslum Maazouddin, their mother Arifa and their sister Pashtoon, were present and involved. Mr. Katz contended that the prosecution elected not to present those witnesses in trying to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Mr. Katz stated that when the Taliban allegations emerged, they “shaped, affected and perverted the entire investigation in the case.” He asked, “After hearing of the Taliban, did the police do anything right?” Mr Katz stated that the statements that Officers Hatton and Kinney took fresh at the scene don’t match up with anything that happens after that.
Mr. Katz stated, “Look at all the evidence missing in this case.” He said that was entirely significant, for proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt. He said, “The list of missing evidence is longer than what we have – by a lot!”
Attorney Charles Swift has some experience in the realm of Islamic extremism, and as an attorney for the Navy, he represented the driver of Osama Bin Ladin in trial once. In this case, he represented the older Niazi son.
In his closing, he explained that Mr. Sayah’s account was not credible.
That a man would boast to a stranger of supporting the Taliban, and the man’s friends just happen to be the stranger’s relatives, that people would attack others right in front of witnesses, that Sayah would get knocked out at the doorstep but then get up to be chased around the house.
Mr Swift pointed out what kind of man Sayah was. He asked “does anyone know if he’s married or not,” a reference to Sayah’s testimony, when he could not answer that simple question.
It was Public Defender Dan Hutchinson who made the strongest attack on the Taliban charges, and really without the Taliban charges, there is no motive for the attack and the prosecution’s case disintegrates.
Mr. Hutchinson stated that in the beginning this case was about the Afghan war, about Mr. Sayah considering returning to his home to help. The prosecution wants to claim that a Taliban cell or Taliban fund-raisers tracked him down and beat him.
He argued that these claims became more and more preposterous, that it was as ridiculous a claim as that “my mother is a Taliban.” He stated that it was not so much the accusation that offends him but rather that “the West Sacramento Police Department and the DA took the claim and ran with it.”
Mr. Hutchinson recounted that when Officer Thruelsen was asked whether in the course of his investigation anyone other than Sayah had mentioned the defendants being supporters of the Taliban, he had said “no.”
Mr. Hutchinson explained that Ms. Johnson had tried to rehabilitate the officer by asking him if he’d even asked that question of anyone. The officer had replied “no,” that he had never even asked anyone. Mr. Hutchinson explained that this looked even worse for the officer, because he failed to investigate the Taliban charges fully.
Mr. Hutchinson argued that Post-911 Muslim-Americans are viewed as somehow less than others, that they sometimes have to explain that they are not devout Muslims in order to avoid being viewed as a threat.
He recounted the times in American history where groups of people have been the target of adverse treatment, and that though the Constitution is a great document, African-Americans were property under it. He stated that it was particularly deplorable to him that this prosecution was conducted in the name of “The People of the State of California.”
Mr. Hutchinson said that the jury, looking at all this, should state “Ms. Johnson, you’re a nice person, but you can’t give us this and expect us to find anything beyond a reasonable doubt.” He stated “this is their Chewbacca case” (a reference that South Park watchers will understand).
Mr. Hutchinson concluded by saying that though the closing arguments had some light-hearted moments, that it is not funny to be accused of being a terrorist and a traitor. He said that his client, Mr. Ashraf, has endured that for seven years and that the jury had the opportunity to end that now.
In the end, it seemed that this was the word of Sayad Sayah and a couple of members of his family and some friends, against the word of the Niazis. There were just too many inconsistencies in their stories, even accounting for the lapse in time. There was never any independent evidence that these guys were Taliban, and plenty of evidence that they were not.
Deputy Public Defender Dan Hutchinson was absolutely correct when he said it is not so much the accusation that offends him, but rather that the West Sacramento Police Department and DA ran with it.
He took a calculated risk when he launched into almost a political speech about the war on terror and the treatment of Muslims in the Post-911 world, but with this jury it seemed to work.
There is always a temptation to suggest that the system worked in this case. I do not believe that it did for a number of reasons. The only good thing is that, as much as this case weighed upon these young men for seven years, at least they were not in custody.
On Tuesday, they were given back their passports, that would enable them to once again leave the country. It was a symbolic act since, after seven years, they will have to get new ones anyway.
However, the toll that this case took on the defendants was extraordinary and it almost cost them their father’s life. The cost to them financially is mindboggling, as having to flip the bill for three private attorneys puts these individuals on the cusp of financial ruin.
And for what? An attempted murder case where no one was very seriously injured? A Taliban case where there was never any evidence that there was Taliban involvement or sympathies?
This case had a bit of everything in it, including prosecutorial misconduct. The fact that this case was thrown out back in 2006 indicates that it should have stayed that way. There was never good evidence to convict these guys, and if anything, Mr. Sayah is the guilty party.
Yes, these guys are free, but it took seven years and a lot of money and heartache to get to that point.
—David M. Greenwald reporting