From left, defense attorneys Jim Fennerty and Michael Deutsch, and Rasmea Odeh.
Finishing on schedule, Rasmea Odeh’s trial came to a close on Friday. The day included a grueling cross examination of the Palestinian American community leader, and closing statements delivered by the prosecution and defense.
A verdict may come on Monday.
After a week in court, the last day brought some relief to Odeh and her lawyers, who have been preparing for this trial for a year.
Odeh was indicted last year in October for allegedly giving false answers on her application for citizenship, which she was granted in 2004. The four questions she is alleged to have answered falsely inquired about her criminal record.
Odeh was convicted by an Israeli military court in 1969 for participating in a series of bombings that led to the death of two civilians. She spent ten years in an Israeli prison.
Odeh denies her involvement and says she was forced to confess after weeks of brutal torture in Israeli custody.
Before the jury entered Judge Gershwin A. Drain’s Detroit courtroom on Friday morning, Odeh’s lead attorney Michael Deutsch asked the court to have a directed verdict of not guilty; this was was denied by Drain. A directed verdict is when a presiding judge decides that no reasonable jury could arrive at a guilty verdict.
For the last week, her defense team has stoutly contested the allegation that Odeh “knowingly” answered falsely, arguing instead that her brother first filled out her application for a visa in 1995 and that she misinterpreted the questions on her application for citizenship in 2004.
The misinterpretation, Odeh asserts, is that she believed the questions were only about her criminal background in the United States. She has also testified that at the time of the application her English skills were insufficient.
The prosecution argues that this interpretation is not reasonable, and claimed an immigration officer verbally specified the questions referred to “anywhere in the world” when Odeh was interviewed for her citizenship.
Jennifer Williams, the immigration officer who interviewed Odeh in 2004, testified on Thursday that when she conducted Odeh’s interview she added “anywhere in the world” to those questions. However, doubt was cast on Williams’ memory during Deutsch’s cross examination.
After the jury returned to their seats Friday morning, Rasmea Odeh resumed her place on the witness stand to testify in her own defense.
Deutsch questioned Odeh about her interview with Williams.
“I remember exactly what she asked,” Odeh said. “I felt like she wanted to finish the interview quickly and make it easy for me.”
Odeh testified that Williams asked the questions exactly as they were written in the application — without adding “anywhere in the world” to those questions.
The prosecution’s cross examination of Rasmea Odeh lasted more than an hour and was by far the most intense moment in the trial, with palpable tension in the courtroom and frustration expressed by both sides. Judge Drain repeatedly intervened to keep US Attorney Jonathan Tukel and Odeh from talking over one another.
In his cross examination, Tukel tried to establish that Odeh’s mistakes were not innocent, and that she intentionally lied on both her immigration and citizenship applications in order to secure status in the United States.
Tukel began by asking Odeh about her education. As the defense has alleged that Odeh had help from her brother on her 1994 visa application and then misinterpreted the questions on her 2004 application for naturalization, the prosecution focused on Odeh’s advanced education.
“You knew that was a false statement when you submitted your application?” he asked.
“No why would I lie?” Odeh responded.
“Why would you lie?” Tukel retorted. “You had to lie because you knew if the US Embassy had found out you were in Lebanon, they would find out you had been in Israel before and would then have found out that you had been convicted of two bombings that resulted in the death of two innocent civilians.”
“No, I was tortured —” Odeh exclaimed.
This was the first time the jury has heard any direct mention of torture — though the defense hinted at “extensive interrogation” during its opening statement. The prosecution immediately objected to Odeh’s invocation of her torture, which was sustained by the judge. Deutsch objected to the long and argumentative question, which was also sustained by the judge.
Throughout the cross examination, Odeh pushed back on Tukel’s questions, attempting to point out the inconsistencies in the application that led her to becoming confused by the question.
In closing arguments, both the prosecution and defense reiterated the cases they had presented over the last four days in court.
The prosecution, using the same PowerPoint presentation from their opening statement, maintained that they had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Odeh knowingly provided false answers on her immigration and naturalization applications.
The “knowingly” element of the crime is what has been consistently disputed by defense attorneys. The legal standard for “knowingly” is that Odeh knew the answers she gave were false and she gave them intentionally; not because of mistake, accident, or any other innocent reason.
The jurors are therefore being asked to infer her state of mind when filling out the application.
The prosecution contends that she wanted to come to the US and knew she would be ineligible if her conviction were disclosed. The defense, by contrast, maintains that Odeh was brought to the US by her family, who originally filled out her visa application and then she misread the questions on her N-400 form — what they assert was an innocent mistake.
With derision, Tukel characterized this as an “amazing string of coincidences.” He described Odeh’s claim that she misinterpreted the question as “ridiculous.”
In an apparent effort to appeal to the majority female jury, Tukel made an analogy to a hypothetical conversation between an engaged couple: “What if a woman asked her fiance if he had ever been married and he said no.”
In the scenario Tukel posited to the jury, the man is then revealed to have been once married abroad, to which “the wife’s head snapped” — but the man claimed he had nevertheless truthfully answered her question.
“That’s an everyday, common experience that you can imagine, to help you use your common sense in this case,” Tukel said to the jury.
Deutsch’s closing statement noted that while the prosecutor and the judge have directed the jury not to consider Odeh’s conviction from 1969, the prosecution invoked the bombing more than fifty times over the course of the week and at least ten in the closing argument alone. “They want you to think she’s dangerous, she’s threatening.”
“Remember [her conviction] comes from a military court in Israel that is made up of Israeli soldiers,” Deutsch said.
He urged the jury to review the N-400 carefully and consider the ambiguity of the questions.
“She testified that if they had asked her directly she would have told them and would have explained the conviction and what happened to her.”
Deutsch emphasized that there are no written instructions or training materials to substantiate the prosecution’s claims that Williams specified she wanted to know about a criminal record “anywhere in the world.”
Deutsch said that representing Odeh has been one of the greatest experiences of his long legal career.
He ended with a quiet appeal to the jury: “A bird of justice, a bird of truth, a bird of redemption is in your hands. You can throw it down and crush it into dust or you can open your hands and let that bird soar back to Chicago.”
Throughout the trial, the jury has been instructed not to speak about the case among themselves or to anyone outside the courtroom. As they will be at their homes for the weekend, before returning to deliberate on Monday morning, the judge admonished them against reading any media about the case.
If a guilty verdict is reached, Judge Drain will determine the punishment. If convicted, Odeh faces up to ten years in prison, revocation of her citizenship and a $250,000 fine.
Before the jury had entered the court that morning, the prosecution and defense had requested certain instructions be included in addition to the judge’s own standard instructions. Deutsch requested that the jury be given the definition of “knowingly,” provided above.
The prosecution asked that the jury be reminded that they are not to determine Odeh’s guilt or innocence in the 1969 conviction.
The jury broke to deliberate for the remaining fifteen minutes of the day, but did not reach a verdict. They did request all evidence submitted to the court.
Odeh and her legal team will return to Chicago for the weekend, as will many of Odeh’s supporters who traveled to and remained in Detroit for the duration of the trial.
The Rasmea Defense Committee has asked people to return to court on Monday, when the jury may reach and announce its verdict.