In a tense court session Thursday, the original lawyer for convicted terror suspect Hamid Hayat testified that she had no criminal trial experience when she took the case and was operating out of a home office.
“It’s awkward, being on this side,” defense attorney Wazhma Mojaddidi said as she began testimony in a federal court hearing in Sacramento that is aimed at getting Hayat’s 2006 conviction overturned.
Under questioning from Hayat appeals attorney Martha Boersch, Mojaddidi said she graduated from the McGeorge School of Law in May 2002 and was admitted to practice law in July 2003.
She is now an experienced family law attorney in Sacramento. But at the time she took on the Hayat case in 2005, she had no experience with jury selection, had never appeared in a federal criminal court and acknowledged that she grew nervous as the trial approached.
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“I had some anxiety about doing it on my own, but I ultimately decided I would do it on my own,” Mojaddidi testified before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes.
Hayat’s current legal team is trying to get a new trial for the former Lodi cherry picker, arguing in part that he did not receive a fair trial at the time because of his lawyer’s inexperience.
Hayat was accused of traveling to Pakistan from 2003 to 2005 and spending part of that time training in a terrorist camp, then returning to await orders to wage jihad.
He and his father were arrested in 2005 after their return to the United States. Hamid Hayat was convicted of lying to the FBI and of providing material support to terrorist. His father, Umer, later took a plea deal and was sentenced to time served. But Hamid Hayat, now 35, was sentenced to 24 years in federal prison.
The case was the first international terror trial in the region since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Hayat’s arrest spawned widespread fear in Lodi’s Muslim community as FBI agents went door-to-door questioning people.
His lawyers contend Hayat was coerced into a false confession to FBI agents and that he never attended any camp. They also argue that the camp the government claims he was trained at was not open during the period Hayat was in Pakistan.
Prosecutors contend that Hayat confessed repeatedly and note that his previous efforts at appeals have been rejected.
Much of the effort at gaining a new trial is aimed at showing that Hayat’s defense attorney was not qualified at the time to handle the case, and that Umer Hayat’s attorney, veteran prosecutor and defense lawyer Johnny Griffin III, virtually ran the defense for both cases, a potential conflict of interest.
Mojaddidi denied that under questioning from Boersch, but acknowledged that she relied on Griffin’s experience and advice.
“I relied on his background and knowledge in reaching the decisions I did for my client,” Mojaddidi said, adding that she would not have handled the case without a veteran attorney to advise her.
“If the question is, would I have represented him alone, without any assistance or mentorship, no I would not,” she said.
Mojaddidi said she ultimately made the decisions about how to proceed at trial, and that she was responsible for selecting the jury for Hamid Hayat.
That conflicts with testimony Wednesday from James Wedick, a veteran retired FBI agent who was hired by Griffin as an investigator. “Johnny was the default attorney, all decisions went through him and he picked both juries,” Wedick said.
Mojaddidi said she has always felt that Hamid Hayat was innocent, and she said that despite her complete lack of criminal law experience both her client and his family supported her hiring.
“I believed that the type of representation would be such that there was no conflict between father and son,” she said, though Griffin was paid the lion’s share of the family’s money to represent Hamid’s father.
Boersch grilled Mojaddidi throughout the day over steps she did not take to advance Hayat’s defense, including making no effort to interview alibi witnesses in Pakistan, other than a call to his uncle. She also questioned why Mojaddidi never filed a motion to suppress Hayat’s confession, or to seek a security clearance to allow her access to classified government evidence.
Mojaddadi’s response was that she and Griffin were committed to seeking a speedy trial so the government could not collect new evidence, but she conceded she was not familiar with the federal judiciary’s speedy trial rules.
“No, but I learned,” she said.
She also said she was not familiar with the legal rule that would have allowed her or an investigator to travel to Pakistan to interview alibi witnesses.
After completing her testimony, Dennis Riordan, the lead appellate attorney for Hayat, took the witness stand and testified about coming into the case after Hayat’s conviction and learning from Mojaddidi about her lack of experience.
“I was flabbergasted,” Riordan said. “From what I could tell, from what I read, this was one of the most complex cases.”
He recounted her telling him she was afraid to disagree with Griffin’s decisions about trial strategy for fear he would no longer serve as a mentor, and said she was “completely unfamiliar” with conflict of interest issues.
Riordan also said Mojaddidi expressed how apprehensive she was as trial neared.
“My recollection is that she used the phrase ‘having a nervous breakdown’ about trying such a complex case,” he said.
Riordan added that Mojaddidi helped with post-trial work, but became upset when he informed her that part of the appeal strategy would be to claim ineffective assistance of counsel.
“She became very emotional and teared up,” Riordan said. “It was a very difficult moment for her.”
The courtroom was packed Thursday with federal prosecutors, Muslim community leaders and Hayat family members as Mojaddidi testified.
“Hopefully, my brother gets out,” Hamid Hayat’s younger sister, Raheela, said during a break in the proceedings. “He’s innocent, he’s been innocent, he will be innocent, and we need justice.
“Finally, we have some hope that he will be out soon.”