Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Estoppel Not a Bar to False Statements Convictions

US v. Benkahla: This case is a third one dealing with terrorism related charges arising out of an Islamic center in Falls Church, Virginia (see the prior Chandia and Khan decisions for more detail). Benkahla was initially charged and acquitted in a bench trial of supplying services to the Taliban and using a firearm in connection therewith in 2004, after being arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2003 (related to the recent Abu Ali decision). The basis for the court's acquittal was the Government failed to prove that the training camp Benkahla attended was in Afghanistan. Undaunted, the Government convened a grand jury to investigate charges of providing material support to terrorist organizations and subpoenaed Benkahla to testify multiple times, during which he denied any involvement. in 2006, the Government indicted Benkahla for making false statements to the grand jury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to the FBI. After a jury convicted on those charges, the district court at sentencing applying the terrorism Guideline, but eventually imposing a variance sentence of 121 months in prison.

On appeal, Benkahla raised several issues, all of which the Fourth Circuit rejected. First, he argued that the Government was collaterally estopped from prosecuting him for false statements after his acquittal on related charges. While recognizing the "tension" inherent in such situations, the Court ultimately found it not to be problematic, focusing on the district court's narrow ground for acquittal in the first trial. Second, he argued that evidence presented at his trial on the nature of radical Islam, jihad, and terrorism was unduly prejudicial. The court concluded otherwise, noting its relevance to the elements of the offenses with which he was charged and noting that the jury acquitted Benkahla on some charges, thus showing it was not unduly swayed by prejudice. Finally, the court rejected Benkahla's argument about the proper application of the terrorism Guideline, specifically rejecting a Sixth Amendment-based Booker argument, noting that "the point is thus that the Guidelines must be advisory, not that judges may find no facts."

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