Defense attorneys for 12 Hanafi Muslims convicted in connection with the 1977 take-over of three downtown Washington buildings urged the D.C. Court of Appeals yesterday to grant their clients a new trial because their original trial was "conducted like a Roman circus."
During day-long arguments before a three-judge appeals panel, defense attorneys raised 16 points in support of their request for a new trial, including pretrial publicity, systematic exclusion of Hanafi Muslims from the jury and allegations of misconduct by government prosecutors and by Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio, who presided at the Hanafis' trial in the D.C. Superior Court.
"This case was tried in a 'Roman Holiday' atmosphere," defense attorney Harry T. Alexander told appeals court Judges Julia Cooper Mack, John W. Kern III, and John M. Ferren.
Alexander represents Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, who on March 9, 1977, led 11 heavily armed Hanafi Muslims in a siege of the District Building, the Islamic Center and the national headquarters of the B'nai B'rith, a Jewish service organization. The men, who took dozens of hostages, killed one person and injured several others during the take-over, were convicted in July 1977 of armed kidnaping and other offenses. They were sentenced by Nunzio the following September to long prison terms.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Fisher, who represented the government yesterday, said the Hanafi case was "a most difficult case to control" and that Judge Nunzio should be commended for "ably conducting the trial."
Fisher said it was "ironic" that the defense would argue the pretrial publicity issue since the Hanafis had announced that the takeover was designed to make certain problems known to the public.
The defense attorneys also contended that the verdict in the case should be overturned because, they argued, one of the jurors was mentally unfit to serve on the panel.
Alexander also argued for the defense that Judge Nunzio "assisted the government in asking questions" and "cited defense counsels for contempt like it was going out of style."