David Wright, a massive 28-year-old dressed in a blue dress shirt and black vest, avoided eye contact with federal jurors Wednesday while his attorney explained that her client had been "a complete idiot."
The defense lawyer, Jessica Hedges, painted a picture of the archetypal American
man-child—immature, incompetent, and living with his mom. In 2015, she said, Wright was incredibly overweight (he clocked in at 530 pounds) and had "no college, no career, no girlfriend." Instead, Hedges told jurors, he wasted away hour after hour on his mother's couch, a "retreat behind the screen" that centered at first on video games like Mortal Combat, an existence familiar to American teens and 20-somethings everywhere.
But then he turned to Islamic State propaganda—which helps explain why he faces up to life in prison.
"Those images are glossy, those images say you can be somebody," explained Hedges, who said her client looked to ISIS because he sought "escape from the life he lived."
In her opening argument at Wright's federal trial, Hedges tried to place his conception of the world's most notorious terrorist group in the context of role-playing games he learned with his uncle, Usaamah Rahim. Only two years his elder, Rahim—who was shot to death by a federal terrorism task force in June 2015—was more like Wright's cousin, she said. First, they were obsessed with Pokémon, then ninjas, then rap stars, before finally fixating on ISIS.
Wright is charged in what the feds describe as a failed conspiracy to act on behalf of ISIS first to behead Pamela Geller—a prominent right-wing blogger—and then kill Boston police. Geller is perhaps best known for espousing toxic and absurd conspiracy theories, like that Barack Obama was Malcolm X's love child, that the former president was beholden to "Islamic overlords," or suggesting Muslims practice bestiality.
In May 2015, she held a "draw Muhammad" cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, that seemed to ignite a firestorm of pro-ISIS activity in the United States. Two wannabe terrorists shot up the event, injuring a security guard before being killed by police. They did so under under the alleged direction of Junaid Hussain, a British hacker and ISIS propagandist who was himself killed abroad the same year.
The feds say Hussain was also feeding plans to Wright via his uncle, Rahim.
According to the government, the duo was not alone—they teamed up with a man Wright met online, Nicholas Rovinski. But the 28-year-old is the only one of the three facing trial; Rahim is dead, and Rovinski agreed to a plea agreement in exchange for his testimony against Wright last year. The latter began testifying Wednesday and will be sentenced after this trial to between 15 and 22 years in federal prison.
"He said that she deserved to be beheaded for the fact that she insulted the Prophet Mohammed," Rovinski told jurors of Wright's plans for Geller.
With more extensive evidence against Wright obtained via wiretaps, Hedge's argument about her client's intent—that he didn't mean what he said and never actually hurt anyone—is the best and perhaps the only defense she has, according to veteran Boston criminal attorney Martin Weinberg.
"This is an example where a defense lawyer is challenged by relatively indisputable electronic evidence," he told me. "To dispute the exist of the conversations would be to lose all credibility with the jury."
Instead, Hedges is attempting to humanize Wright by way of insult.
Hedges made the case her "obnoxious" and "self-centered" client was "living in a fantastical world" and never actually intended to behead anyone. Nor did he mean to encourage Rahim to kill, as federal prosecutors have charged, she insisted.
Assistant US attorney Stephanie Siegler told a very different story.
According to the federal prosecutor, Wright was a key player in a dangerous Boston terror cell that would have carried out lethal attacks if not for Rahim's death and Wright's arrest. Wright actually egged Rahim to get in on his plans, she said, claiming he instructed his older relative to destroy evidence of their ISIS ties. Upon learning Rahim had been killed by police, Siegler added, Wright attempted to destroy records of his own past communication with the relative.
In many ways, the strange case speaks to a frenzied—and increasingly rearview—era when the feds seemed to indict an American for allegedly conspiring to help ISIS on a weekly basis. Now it serves mostly as a window into how lonely young people can become intoxicated by evil.
Karen Greenberg is director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School in New York. Under her watch, the center has sought to track every single ISIS-related attack, attempted attack, and arrest in the United states since 2014—she's counted some 144 so far.
The summer of 2015 was "the height of ISIS prosecutions," according to Greenberg, who pointed to a spike in her data. There were 14 incidents in the month of June 2015 alone, compared to 17 so far in all of 2017, according to her latest report, released on Monday.
Early on, American ISIS wannabes often seemed to focus on joining the group overseas. That's what Mohimanul Bhuiya, who attended Columbia in New York before joining ISIS in Syria, did—only to plead with the FBI to help him escape in October 2014. "I am fed up with this evil," he wrote. Such foreign operations account for 68 percent of all ISIS-related incidents in the United States, according to Greenberg's data.
But in 2015, the professor said, the trend shifted toward plotting—and in some cases, carrying out—attacks much closer to home.
That was the summer US officials and congressmen embraced the term "terrorism gone viral"—the implication being that ISIS recruits no longer had to directly interact with potential followers to inspire an attack. Instead, the conventional wisdom emerged that foreign terrorists could easily direct acts of violence over social media.
But Greenberg's latest report shows a dramatic drop in ISIS-inspired attacks since then, even if the deadliest came in 2016, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The decline roughly correlates with the death of Hussain, the British hacker, who was killed by an airstrike in Syria in August 2015 after being in contact with Rahim.
While the feds are painting Wright as a key player in a three-person cell, they do not claim he was in contact with Hussain directly. Instead, Siegler told jurors the defendant wanted to one-up the Garland attack in Texas. In fact, her case hinges on the idea that he wished to "harm the United States more than the Boston Marathon bombers."
"In his eyes, that was not effective," Siegler said of the attack that killed three and wounded over 200 more.
Wright was arrested just weeks after convicted marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in the very courtroom where the 28-year-old now stands trial.
If Wright did plot an act of terrorism even worse than the Boston bombing, the only person connected to it who died was Rahim.
It is unclear why or when the feds began monitoring the men initially—though it was revealed in court Wednesday that at least one individual Wright discussed ISIS with was an informant for the FBI.
What we do know is that sometime before 6 AM on June 2, 2015, according to a federal wiretap, Rahim called Wright and tearfully informed his nephew that he was "going to be on vacation right here in Massachusetts." Federal agents listening to that call took Rahim to mean that rather than behead Geller, Rahim was going to carry out some kind of jihad right in Boston. And when Rahim said he was going to go after the "boys in blue," they understandably took him to mean local cops.
In court, Siegler described Rahim as emotional and Wright as calm—egging him on to attack. But Hedges, the defense lawyer, claimed her client did not know the consequences of his language. Essentially, she said, he thought it was a game.
Though there was no warrant for Rahim's arrest, when he headed out that morning with a 13-inch knife, he was met by several vehicles full of Joint Terrorism Task Force officers. Sometime thereafter, he drew the blade, the feds said, and was shot to death.
Wright was arrested later that day, and Rovinksy nabbed at his home in Rhode Island three days later.
That's when things got really weird. According to prosecutors, both Wright and Rovinski immediately gave up their Miranda rights, proceeding to discuss their allegiance to ISIS at length. (Shortly after their arrest, Hedges said, Wright was denied counsel when she tried to contact him.) Rovinski later spelled out his ties as such in letters written from jail.
Meanwhile, though the Suffolk County district attorney cleared an FBI agent and Boston police officer of any wrongdoing in Rahim's shooting death, the deceased's family continues to attest his innocence.
Hedges, the defense lawyer, suggested her client did not actually want his relative to attack police, and instead portrayed Rahim's death as suicide by cop. "Rahim says, "just shoot me" and they do," she told jurors of the fatal incident.
"Hang in there," she added. "It's going to be a long trial."
Wright has pleaded not guilty to the charges centering on conspiracy to obstruct justice and actual obstruction, conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. But convincing the jury to feel sorry for a pathetic and troubled young man will prove difficult when ISIS-inspired beheading was allegedly on the table.
"The defense seems almost ludicrous," said veteran Boston defense attorney Phil Tracy. " It sounds like one of those reality TV shows, [like] My 600 lb. Life."
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