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Attorneys spar in ISIS appeal hearing

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Attorney Bruce Nestor, right, speaks to family members and supporters.
Attorney Bruce Nestor, right, speaks to a crowd of family members and supporters of the three Twin Cities men in St. Paul, Minn., on June 14, 2018.
Jon Collins | MPR News

Supporters and family members of three Twin Cities men convicted in 2016 on federal terrorism charges packed a courtroom in downtown St. Paul on Thursday morning to hear attorneys argue that the convictions should be overturned.

Guled Omar, 23, and Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud, both 24, were convicted in 2016 of terror charges including plotting to commit murder overseas. Omar received a sentence of 35 years and both Daud and Farah received 30-year sentences.

Defense attorneys argued before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that the men's convictions should be overturned due to the trial judge's instructions to the jury. Attorney Bruce Nestor, who is representing Daud, argued that the instructions conflated intending to join a terrorist group with intending to murder.

"To say that you can be convicted of conspiracy to murder because of how the government characterizes your thoughts, without proof of the intent to kill, really is a very dangerous concept that greatly expands the potential for people to be charged with very serious offenses without adequate proof," Nestor said after the hearing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty countered that any errors in the jury instructions were "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt."

Docherty told the panel of judges that "people were killed" and died "as a result of conspiring with this group," and that there was no evidence the men wanted to travel to Syria for "any other reason than to kill for ISIL," he said using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

Farah's attorney, Jordan Kushner, argued that Farah didn't have adequate legal representation at his trial and hadn't been briefed on the details of the case against him by his previous attorney. Kushner said Farah should have been given a new attorney before the trial.

Attorney Murad Mohammad tried to withdraw as Farah's attorney just days before the trial was supposed to start. Another of Farah's previous attorneys had to withdraw after there were allegations that a law clerk at his firm meddled with other defendants' cases.

The judges asked questions, and sometimes expressed doubts, about arguments made by both sides. It's expected to be weeks before the judges release their decision.

Supporters of the defendants gathered outside the court building after the hearing. Some wore orange ponchos with the three men's names on them. Mohamed Farah's younger brother Abdifatah told the group the court proceedings were unjust.

"We can't just let these youth, these three boys, sit in jail for the rest of their lives while we continue our lives and forget about them," he said.

The trials of the three men attracted international interest. Six other Twin Cities men also charged in connection to ISIS pleaded guilty and were given lesser sentences instead of going to trial.