AL-AMIN ON TRIAL
More than a man on trial
Ability to ensure justice for all is at stake
by Lateef Mungin, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6 Jan 2002
Four months ago, the trial of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin threatened to resurrect the divisiveness of the radical '60s. Now, as 1,500 potential jurors are summoned to the Fulton County Courthouse this week to start the murder trail of the man once known as H. Rap Brown, the case raises a new question: Can a Muslim get a fair trial after Sept. 11?
"This trial is of great concern to Muslims and the Muslim community," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group. "We see this trial as a barometer on whether a Muslim can get a fair trial, free of bias, and whether a jury will make decisions based on external factors or look at the facts of the case."
The trial had been scheduled to begin Sept. 12. But after the terrorist attacks, Fulton Superior Court Judge Stephanie Manis delayed the trial.
Defense attorneys and court observers question whether Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a Muslim imam, can get a fair trial in the atmosphere created by the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Manis said she is taking every step to ensure a fair trial. During a recent pretrial hearing, she even gave attorneys news articles on the negative impact the attacks have had on post-Sept. 11 court cases. Manis is expected to call 1,500 perspective jurors, or more than three times the usual number for a case, to look for 12 unbiased jurors.
"It was obvious that the case could not be tried on Sept. 12," said Jack Martin, one of Al-Amin's defense attorneys. "But we are ready now. We have to try the case sometime. And this could be the case that tests the waters."
Al-Amin is charged with the slaying of Fulton County sheriff's Deputy Ricky Kinchen, 35, and the wounding of his partner, Deputy Aldranon English, then 28. The officers were shot in March 2000 as they tried to serve a Cobb County arrest warrant on Al-Amin.
Jury selection starts Tuesday, when groups of 100 jurors begin filling out questionnaires drawn up by defense and prosecution lawyers.
Some legal experts say the case against Al-Amin could be a gauge of how jurors view Muslims after the terrorist attacks.
Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the Washington-based Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, said his organization has received numerous reports of court delays in cases involving Muslims since Sept. 11.
Ibish said he does not know whether it will help or hurt Al-Amin that he is an African-American convert to Islam, instead of a foreign-born Muslim. Both foreign-born and U.S.-born Muslims have complained about discrimination since Sept. 11, Ibish said.
"We have seen a widespread fear that juries will be more prejudiced toward Muslims and Arab-Americans who are defendants in criminal cases," said Ibish, whose organization has 80 national field offices and gives legal work and referrals for Arab-Americans and Muslims. "We've also heard from many Arab-American defense attorneys who have told clients to find other attorneys because of this fear. It is a major concern."
Members of the Community Mosque of Atlanta, Al-Amin's mosque in the West End, say they don't know how Sept. 11 will affect the trial of their prayer leader. But members say they are leaving nothing to chance and they have passed out hundreds of fliers on the upcoming trial throughout Atlanta.
"We are putting on an all-out effort to get the facts of the case in front of people. We would do this whether Sept. 11 happened or not," said Bilal Sunni-Ali, a member of Al-Amin's mosque. Relatives of the slain deputy say they want justice.
"If [Al-Amin] did it, he should be a man and `fess up to it," said Steve Kinchen, 26, nephew of Ricky Kinchen. "But if he did not do it, we want to find the man that did. This has caused a lot of grief with the family. ... I can't describe the pain."
Al-Amin is no stranger to the courtroom or to controversy. His well-publicized civil rights activism in the 1960s with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and a four-month stint with the Black Panthers Party placed him in front of several judges.
After appealing a weapons charge in the late 1960s, Al-Amin was accused of inciting a riot because of statements he made in a 1967 speech in Maryland. In 1973, he was convicted of armed robbery after a shootout with police outside a New York bar.
Al-Amin converted to Islam in prison. After his parole in 1976, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, a holy city of Islam, then settled into Atlanta's West End, a mostly African-American neighborhood where a small Muslim community grew up around the mosque he founded.
Al-Amin opened a small store and saw the mosque grow to more than 200 followers. He became the spiritual leader of the National Community, one of the biggest Muslim communities in the United States, and was known for starting neighborhood patrols in the West End and converting drug users to Islam.
All this ended March 16, 2000, as English and Kitchen tried to serve Al-Amin with a warrant. The Cobb County warrant stemmed from Al-Amin's failure to appear in court on charges of theft by receiving a stolen car, impersonating an officer and having no proof of insurance.
English identified Al-Amin as the man who shot him and his partner. But Al-Amin was not immediately captured, and a massive manhunt ensued. Al-Amin was arrested four days later in rural White Hall, Ala., a place where much of his civil rights activism originated.
English told investigators he thought he had wounded his attacker. But when he was arrested, Al-Amin showed no wounds. Before Al-Amin's arrest, a witness claimed to have seen a man in bloody clothing hitchhiking from the West End the night of the shooting. Police also said they found a trail of blood leading to a vacant house nearby.
Many of Al-Amin's supporters, including his older brother, Ed Brown, said the charges -- both old and new -- are part of a government conspiracy to destroy Al-Amin. Though his brother has changed his name and changed his religion, law enforcement officials remain suspicious, Ed Brown said.
"It's business as usual. I've seen this all before," said Brown, who said he has collected more than 200 pages of government surveillance documents on his brother. "Given the fact that he is a Muslim, black and has been designated as a militant, it seems improbable that he would get a fair trial. But still a part of me hopes that there are 12 good people who vote on the evidence and the facts, and not their prejudice."
© 2002 Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.