MANHATTAN (CN) - A schizophrenic neuroscientist convicted of trying to kill U.S. soldiers deserves a new trial because of her mental illness, counsel for the so-called Lady al-Qaida argued before the 2nd Circuit.
Aafia Siddiqui was convicted in 2010 of attempted murder and assault, among other charges, after firing an M-4 rifle at U.S. soldiers and agents who were questioning her in Afghanistan for suspected terrorism.
In a 57-page brief to the federal appeals court, attorney Dawn Cardi says prosecutors should have been barred from showing jurors "incendiary" documents found during Siddiqui's capture. Siddiqui's hand-written notes detailed plans to attack Plum Island, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge.
The government did not charge Siddiqui with any terrorist conspiracy, and the admission of the documents prejudiced the jury to the charges against her, Cardi said at a hearing Friday.
She added that mental illness, rather than an actual terrorist threat, is all that is apparent from Siddiqui's scribblings about spreading a theoretical biological weapon that did not harm children.
"Some of the documents, mostly mad scribblings, had far-fetched ideas for possible attacks of the United States - clearly, the overwrought imaginings of a troubled mind," the defense motion to the 2nd Circuit states. "Nonetheless, for a jury sitting in New York where the memory of terrorist attacks remains quite alive, these documents were damning."
Prosecutor Katherine Polk Failla told the appellate panel that the documents demonstrated Siddiqui's "knowledge, purpose and intent."
At the hearing, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Wesley pointed out that Siddiqui insisted on testifying at her trial and appeared "competent." Cardi says the trial court should have barred Siddiqui's testimony because of her diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic.
"She was competent, but not rational," Cardi replied, citing "paranoid delusion" as the reason her client refused to listen to legal advice.
Siddiqui tried to fire her defense team during her trial, made anti-Semitic outbursts, insisted on DNA testing to screen jurors for Jewish heritage, refused to speak to her lawyers in prison before the sentencing, and shook her head throughout her attorney's plea for a shorter sentence.
Months before the trial, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman ruled that Siddiqui was competent to face the charges against her. Two government psychiatrists had testified that the MIT-educated suspect was faking her symptoms of mental illness.
Opposed to Cardi's 2nd Circuit appeal, Siddiqui did not attend the Friday hearing in which Cardi also fought sentencing "enhancements" for Siddiqui's premeditation and terrorism.
The jury rejected that Siddiqui's firing of the M-4 was a premeditated act, Cardi said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jesse Furman said that she shouted anti-American epithets while shooting the rifle, which she aimed toward U.S. soldiers.
There would be no doubt that it would qualify as terrorism, if she pointed the gun at a U.S. president, Furman added.
Cardi replied that the analogy could just as easily be applied to a postal worker, turning any violent act toward a government employee into terrorism.
Many of Siddiqui's supporters doubt that she ever fired a weapon, arguing that investigators never recovered a single bullet hole, shell casing or fingerprint from the scene. The case against Siddiqui rested on the testimony of several witnesses, whose version of the events sometimes conflicted.
Failla called the discrepancies between memories "not surprising," since the witnesses were recalling a "very quick, very traumatic" event.
Cardi strayed from both narratives, saying Siddiqui was trying to escape, not influence U.S. policy.
The panel has reserved decision on the appeal.