MANHATTAN (CN) — Noting that the bombs set off in New York and New Jersey last year drew national headlines, a federal judge refused to let Ahmed Rahimi stand trial outside Manhattan.
“By shifting this case, we will merely be shifting this case to another large media market,” U.S. District Judge Richard Berman told the court Monday morning.
Rahimi’s federal trial in Manhattan is set to begin on Oct. 2, a little more than a year after a series of nonlethal explosions in New York and New Jersey sparked panic in both states.
Of the four bombs linked to Rahimi, one that detonated in a Chelsea Dumpster on Sept. 17, 2016, caused the most damage: wounding 31 people and shattering windows as far as 400 feet away.
Another pressure-cooker bomb in Manhattan failed to detonate, but two other explosives went off, without harming bystanders, at the Jersey Shore and a train station entrance in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Despite their limited impact, the bombings set off a firestorm of media coverage at the height of the U.S. election season.
Ignoring Rahimi’s U.S. citizenship, then-Republican candidate Donald Trump cast the 28-year-old Elizabeth man as an international terrorist who slipped through the cracks.
“Immigration security is national security,” Trump told a crowd in Ft. Myers, Florida, two days after the bombing.
Rahimi was already in police custody at this point, hospitalized in Newark after a shootout with officers in New Jersey. Trump told his supporters that the Afghanistan-born suspect should be treated as an enemy combatant and suggested that he should be denied medical coverage.
A day later, terrorism charges were noticeably absent from a criminal complaint charging Rahimi with using weapons of mass destruction, bombing a place of public use, and property destruction.
That did not stop then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara from hinting otherwise on Twitter.
“American way of life attacked this weekend [with] explosions in Chelsea & Seaside Park but swift response led to fed[-eral] terror charges,” he wrote on Nov. 21.
Quoting this tweet in an April 5 memorandum, Rahimi’s attorney Sabrina Shroff accused prosecutors of tainting a New York jury pool by issuing misleading statements and releasing evidence she called inflammatory.
In one example from Rahimi’s unsealed charges, prosecutors quoted excerpts from a handwritten journal in which Rahimi praises “Brother Osama bin Laden” and the Fort Hood shooter. Prosecutors say the book became soaked with blood and pierced with bullets during Rahimi’s violent arrest.
Major networks also carried surveillance footage of Rahimi appearing to set the bombs in place.
The defense team says its survey found that potential jurors in Manhattan were four times more likely than candidates in Burlington, Vermont, to cite this footage as compelling evidence against Rahimi.
Ruling from the bench this morning, Berman noted that Rahimi’s case has become old news.
“It is clear that the peak coverage of Mr. Rahimi’s case has dissipated,” the judge said.
Rahimi’s legal team has not decided whether to appeal Berman’s ruling.
“We will read the opinion when we get it and decide the next steps,” defense attorney Peggy Cross-Goldenberg told reporters outside of court.
This morning’s proceedings also shed light on Rahimi’s secret plea negotiations, with defense attorneys indicating that they are seeking leniency for physical and mental injuries their client sustained during the shootout with police.
“Specifically, we asked that the plea offer reflect Mr. Rahimi’s mental and physical health, including his being shot 11 times, his limited life-longevity, brain injuries and/or post-traumatic stress disorder,” the Federal Defenders of New York’s executive director David Patton wrote in a letter to the judge.
Though dated April 28, Patton’s letter became publicly available this morning for the first time.
Patton said that he hoped to keep those confidential discussions outside of court, until Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil Bove disclosed information about them in a letter to the judge.
Patton’s co-counsel Shroff revealed this bargaining chip weeks earlier in an email to government lawyers.
“We are (and have always been) concerned that Mr. Rahimi has significant mental health issues and that your office should consider those issues for purposes of plea negotiations,” Shroff wrote (parentheses in original).
But, Shroff added, “at this time, we don’t expect to challenge his competency.”
Prosecutor Bove asked the judge to intervene, saying Shroff’s qualification left room for defense counsel to challenge Rahimi’s competency later.
“Other than the representations of defense counsel, the government is not aware of any basis for questioning the defendant’s competency in any respect,” the prosecutor wrote in a 2-page letter.
With neither side disputing Rahimi’s fitness to stand trial, Berman decided not to wade into a controversy that has not formally been raised.