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Lawyers for convicted terrorists in N.C. say conspiracy not proven

RICHMOND, Va. — Attorneys for three members of a North Carolina terror ring are asking a federal appeals court in Virginia to toss out their convictions and sentences because of insufficient evidence and other issues.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond heard arguments on Thursday in the case of Mohammad Omar Aly Hassan, Hysen Sherifi and Ziyad Yaghi.

The three men were convicted in 2011 of conspiring to attack the U.S. Marine Base in Quantico, Va., and foreign targets after testimony by two FBI informants who said they were part of a group of eight men who raised money, stockpiled weapons, took trips overseas and trained in preparation for jihadist attacks against perceived enemies of Islam.

A jury in New Bern, N.C., convicted the men after a month-long trial held around the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and later sentenced them to 15 to 45 years in federal prison.

But attorneys for the men told the three-judge panel of the appeals court that the evidence presented did not constitute conspiracy. They argued that jurors’ ability to use evidence of videos and comments posted on social media as part of their deliberations violated their clients’ First Amendment rights.

While they may have had religious beliefs as Muslims to engage in jihad somewhere, “that’s not a crime,” said Clark Fischer, an attorney for Sherifi.

But prosecutor Jason Kellhofer said the sufficiency of the evidence is “overwhelming” and was “far more than simply words.” He outlined evidence at trial that included physical and firearms training, financial support, recruitment and travel abroad. The propaganda, he said, was just “another brick in the wall.”

During the arguments Thursday, the judges stressed the importance of giving the jury credit for weighing all of the evidence in rendering a decision and not solely relying on the social media comments as the basis for their verdict.

“Don’t these pieces begin to add up to where a jury could draw a reasonable inference?” asked Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III. “There was no conviction here on the basis of belief.”

Wilkinson also added that everyone has a right to their own beliefs but evidence such as building a bunker to hide weapons, “that’s conduct in furtherance of a criminal act.”

The attorneys for the men also argued that the sentences imposed against the men were unreasonable because the lower court applied the sentencing enhancement for engaging in terrorism. But Kellhofer said the question of intent used to apply the terrorism enhancement is supported by the evidence presented in the case.

Sherifi was sentenced to 45 years in prison, Yaghi got nearly 32 years and Hassan was sentenced to 15 years. They faced the possibility of life in prison. Each has maintained his innocence.

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