January 29, 2014
Prosecutors want to keep testimony by three key witnesses — an undercover police officer and two informants — out of public view at the trial of a man charged with plotting terror attacks with homemade bombs, a case in which police tactics are likely to become a central issue.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office wants the three to testify anonymously and in a closed courtroom at Jose Pimentel’s trial, set to start next month. A judge didn’t immediately rule on the issue at a hearing Wednesday, but he noted that there’s a high legal bar for closing courtrooms.
Prosecutors say the undercover officer and informants could be imperiled if their identities became public. But Pimentel’s lawyers say the court should stay open so the public gets a full picture of how police dealt with him during a two-year investigation.
Pimentel, a Dominican-born al-Qaida sympathizer also known as Muhammad Yusuf, maintained a website advocating jihad, or holy war, against the United States, police and prosecutors said.
He talked with one of the informants about killing soldiers, assassinating a judge or bombing police stations or the George Washington Bridge, prosecutors said. He was arrested while making a pipe bomb in the informant’s apartment in November 2011, authorities said.
American law strongly favors public trials, but courts have been closed to protect witnesses’ safety, shield classified government information, avoid traumatizing child witnesses or keep an undercover agent’s identity under wraps so he or she can continue covert work.
“Courts have to be very careful when they do this,” Pace Law School professor Bennett L. Gershman said, because appellate judges have sometimes reversed convictions when they found courtrooms were wrongly closed. In general, a judge has to establish that there’s a compelling reason to keep the public out and consider whether less restrictive alternatives would work.
Most terrorism cases are federal, but Pimentel was charged under a rarely used state terrorism law passed shortly after the Sept. 11attacks. The 29-year-old could face up to life in prison if convicted.