The D.C. Court of Appeals yesterday unanimously upheld the convictions of 12 Hanafi Muslims charged with conspiracy, murder and assault in connection with the 1977 takeover of three downtown Washington buildings.
In a 110-page opinion, a three-judge panel called the evidence presented by the government against the Hanafi Muslims overwhelming and said that allegations of error in the judge's handling of the trial were obscured by the evidence.
Attorneys for the Hanafis argued before the appeals court last February that the seven-week long D.C. Superior Court trial before Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio "was conducted like a Roman circus."
But the three appeals court judges -- John M. Ferren, Julia Cooper Mack, and John W. Kern III -- disagreed and concluded that the trial judge, as well as the prosecutors and defense attorneys, "performed well under the circumstances."
"The court, through its questions and objections, facilitated the fact-finding process . . .," the judges wrote. "It is fair to say, in summary, that the court generally was careful to limit all the witnesses to their direct observations, cutting them off if they started to use inflammatory words. . .
"It is also fair to characterize a number of the allegations here as frivolous," the judges wrote. "We note that the court's allegedly objectionable behavior frequently was prompted by the improper conduct of defense counsel."
The judges contended that Harry T. Alexander, attorney for Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, leader of the Hanafi seige, "made improper opening remarks to the jury, argued with witnesses, interrupted the court, commented on the testimony and the court's rulings, asked improper questions and 'baited' the court."
"Other counsel, too, did not wholly refrain from commenting on the evidence, arguing with a witness, arguing with the court and moving for a mistrail in front of the jury," the judges confirmed.
Alexander could not be reached for comment about the judge's criticism.
On the issues of pretrial publicity, the judges wrote, "Appellants had sought widespread media coverage of their actions; Khaalis spoke with members of the press and the police during the seige. They cannot now complain that the very fact of the publicity they wanted interfered with their right to a fair trial."
Khaalis, on March 9, 1977, led 11 heavily armed Hanafi Muslims in the siege of the District Building, the Islamic Center and the national headquarters of the B'nai B'rith, a Jewish service organization.During the takeover, dozens of hostages were taken, one person was killed and several others were injured.
The Hanafis were convicted in July 1977 of armed kidnaping and other offenses. All are serving jail terms ranging up to 123 years.