The D.C. Superior Court judge presiding at the trial of three men accused of conspiring to assassinate Iranian exile Ali Akbar Tabatabai described portions of the evidence presented by the prosecution as "slight" yesterday and "admittedly tidbits."
Judge Fred B. Ugast made the comments after reviewing a routine request by defense lawyers that he acquit the men without allowing the case to go to the jury. Ugast said some of the defense arguments were "close questions," but said he would allow the case to go the jury because prosecutors had presented sufficient evidence so that a jury could "could find beyond a reasonable doubt" that an assassination conspiracy existed and that the three men were involved.
Such defense requests are rarely granted -- especially in major cases -- and defense attorneys appeared heartened that Ugast spent Thanksgiving Day and nearly three hours yesterday considering the motion.
Tabatabai, a prominent opponent of the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was shot last year at his Bethesda home by a man disguised as a mailman. The alleged triggerman, Daoud Salahuddin, also known as David Belfield, a former security guard in the Iranian Interests Section of the Algerian Embassy here, is believed to have fled to Iran. A second alleged conspirator, Al Fletcher Hunter, also known as Abu Bakr Zaid Sharriff, is the government's chief witness. He is testifying under a grant of immunity from prosecution in this incident and in several bank robbery and other cases.
The three men on trial are Ahmed Rauf, also known as Horace Butler, who allegedly helped Salahuddin obtain a U.S. Postal Service truck as part of a ploy to pose as a mailman, and who is accused of disposing of the murder weapon, a 9mm pistol; Ali Abdul-Mani, also known as Lee Curtis Manning, who allegedly rented the vehicle used for the escape, and William Caffee Jr., also known as Kalid, who allegedly helped abandon the car in the District. These are all elements of the conspiracy charge that each faces.
Ugast described some of the evidence against Caffee as "admittedly tidbits," but said a jury "could infer from his later conduct in disposing of the alleged getaway car and other actions that he was involved." Ugast made his observations outside the presence of the jury.
Ugast also appeared to have some concerns with the perjury charges against Abdul-Mani. Abdul-Mani rented the blue Toyota allegedly used to drive Salahuddin to Montreal and then reported the car stolen a week after the killing. He denied to a grand jury that he lent the car to Salahuddin and denied that he was paid by Salahuddin for the rental, statements that led to the perjury charge.
Ugast said it was a "close question" whether Abdul-Mani committed perjury when he said he was not reimbursed by Salahuddin. Ugast called the evidence on both Caffee and Abdul-Mani "limited," but sufficient for a jury to decide the charges against them and against Rauf.
After Ugast's ruling, the defense began its presentation, seeking to refute Hunter's testimony. Ed Wilhite, Caffee's attorney, called Caffee's mother to the stand to testify that her son was bitten by a police dog during an arrest a month before the assassination and was immobile during the time Hunter testified Caffee accompanied him to the Library of Congress to get information on Tabatabai.
Wilhite also pointed to what he argued was another contradiction in Hunter's testimony. Wilhite said that some of the calls Hunter claimed he made to Caffee after the assassination could not have occurred when Hunter said they had, since Caffee was in jail on unrelated charges two days after the killing.
Defense lawyers expect to conclude their case by Tuesday and the case may go to the jury as early as next Wednesday.