Guest Columns

HUDSON: AL-TURKI'S FATE IN JUDGE’S HANDS

Colorado’s Islamophobia Lollapalooza

The Colorado Statesman

For a brief week that encompassed two and a half days of court hearings, Homaidan al-Turki was back in Colorado asking Arapahoe County District Judge Mark Hannen to grant him probation, for which he is eligible after more than eight years in Colorado prisons, and a return to Saudi Arabia. He would receive sex offender treatment there and serve out the remainder of any sentencing conditions under the custody of the Kingdom’s Ministry of the Interior. Five armed Arapahoe Sheriff’s deputies provided an intimidating presence in the courtroom for the 50 to 100 al-Turki supporters who politely attended each hearing. Unbeknownst to most Coloradans, this case is receiving widespread attention throughout the Muslim world. And that attention is not directed towards the sublime fairness meted out by the American system of justice. To the contrary, there is considerable puzzlement at how an alleged immigration violation has morphed into a life sentence for this father of five.

Before recounting what transpired in court, it is useful to recount the ways in which this hearing was entirely disconnected from reality. One of my favorite funhouse attractions at the old Elitch’s amusement park was its maze of mirrors — where it was almost impossible to distinguish what was real and what was merely a reflection. Welcome to Homaidan al-Turki’s world. Representing “the people” was Assistant District Attorney Ann Tomsic, who prosecuted the original case and who strongly opposes probation or any transfer for Mr. al-Turki. She repeatedly emphasized Colorado’s responsibility to reduce the risk the defendant could pose to the public, either here or in Saudi Arabia. She insisted that al-Turki’s participation in the Department of Corrections’ SOTMP (sexual offender treatment and monitoring program) was a non-negotiable requirement.

Of course there is no actual risk to the people of Colorado, since al-Turki is scheduled for immediate deportation upon the completion of his sentence. Beyond that, he was recently transferred into the custody of the federal prison system and now resides in a notorious hellhole in Tucson, Ari. — ostensibly for his own protection. The Department of Corrections justified this transfer of custody because of the notoriety attached to the defendant as an initial suspect in the assassination of Corrections chief Tom Clements. Of course, his identity was leaked to the press by sources in the Governor’s office before Evan Ebel was killed in a shootout with Texas law enforcement. Sources within the Department of Corrections report that it was a fellow 211 gang member who first tipped authorities to al-Turki’s potential involvement. You have to admire the 211 prison gang for having a scapegoat teed up to draw attention away from their own shooter. The Colorado Springs police continue to maintain al-Turki remains a “person of interest” in their continuing investigation and Tomsic was quick to point out that we should keep him in Colorado custody in the unlikely event the case takes a turn back in his direction.

In other words, his incarceration in Arizona makes participation in the Colorado SOTMP impossible. Yet, so long as he remains under suspicion in the Clements killing it is argued he should be incarcerated. (You only need to look at the Jon Benet Ramsey case to know the real culprits may never be found.) But beyond that, al-Turki has refused to participate in SOTMP for two reasons, one legal and one religious. You will not be admitted to SOTMP unless you acknowledge your guilt, something the defendant has never done. But, if he did, and his original conviction were eventually overturned on appeal, he could be retried on the basis of his admissions in treatment. The program also requires responses regarding sexual interest to photographs of women and children in various conditions of undress. Al-Turki objects to this “teasing” exercise as an affront to his religious beliefs. Finally, there is the fact that a recent audit of Colorado’s SOTMP program, conducted by the Department of Corrections, found it profoundly deficient in many ways but most of all for the treatment of low risk offenders.

Erratic prosecution dominates hearing

A representative of the Saudi Ambassador appeared to attest to the Kingdom’s commitment to enforce whatever sentencing requirements would be imposed by the court, including al-Turki’s participation in its own culturally sensitive sexual offender treatment regimen. Tomsic was quick to say the Saudis couldn’t be trusted to keep their word. At least 80 percent of the hearing hours were dominated by Ms. Tomsic. At first I was tempted to believe that, like Columbo, her erratic and scattered questioning was designed to trick witnesses into stumbling over themselves with contradictions. I finally concluded it was more the product of a meandering mind. The prosecution offered 43 exhibits, the defendants more than a hundred, none of them available to observers. Tomsic had placed several boxes behind her chair, more documents at the exhibit table, others stuffed beneath the podium and still more lay littered across her desk. Interminable minutes were wasted as she wandered between these sites seeking exhibits, like the hoarder who claims she knows precisely where everything is but can never find one particular thing.

She first called Ari Zavaras, the former Denver police chief who has twice helmed the Colorado Department of Corrections. In 2011 he wrote a letter on behalf of Homaidan al-Turki’s parole request, noting his commendable behavior as an inmate. Tomsic attempted to demonstrate that Henry Solano, former U.S. attorney and one of al-Turki’s lawyers, had actually drafted his letter. When that failed, she produced a list of charges that appear on al-Turki’s incident report — a document that follows prisoners through their years in the corrections system. It included an alleged death threat against another inmate. She demanded to know whether Zavaras was aware of this incident, and if he felt he should have known about it. He conceded that, if true, he would have wanted the matter brought to his attention. By the final day of the trial, the Attorney General sent over the attorney assigned to the Corrections Department to testify the charge was investigated in 2005 and dismissed as unfounded. He implied this information had been shared with Tomsic, who claimed she never received it.

Her cross examination of Dr. Spencer Friedman, who had conducted a forensic evaluation of al-Turki and determined his risk of re-offending was “low,” as had a previous evaluator, seemed to backfire. Her own witness, a sexual offender therapist by the name of Doug Carpenter, spilled the beans on the negative SOTMP audit under cross-examination by al-Turki’s attorneys. The former Limon warden, Angel Medina, now an assistant director at the Department, confirmed the defendant’s exemplary behavior as an inmate. He also acknowledged having worked with Solano in providing supporting information for Zavaras’ letter. Tomsic accused him of having become friends with Solano, which Medina confirmed. But he indicated this was primarily because of Solano’s courteous and professional deportment. Tomsic did get Medina to say that 25 years ago, when he was still a rookie corrections officer, he had been introduced to Solano along with others in his capacity as executive director of the Department.

Much of the testimony turned on reams of emails, which were subpoenaed by both sides. If I learned anything over two and a half days it would be to rely on phone calls and dispense with emails. Paul Hollenbeck, another career Corrections manager, who was assigned to help Tom Clements prepare the department’s original response to al-Turki’s request for a transfer to Saudi Arabia under the terms of the prisoner transfer treaty between the Saudis and the United States, managed to trip himself up on the witness stand. Emails revealed he had maintained a back channel correspondence with Tomsic, alerting her to Clements’ initial decision to approve the transfer in January of this year. Several emails reported that Clements in fact signed an approval letter, which has since mysteriously disappeared. Hollenbeck made it clear he opposed this decision in his emails to Tomsic. He claimed he never received the signed approval packet, although Clements’ administrative assistant notified her boss that he had, in fact, picked it up from her. Meanwhile Hollenbeck claimed he received a call from the FBI, although he could not recall who actually placed this call, alerting him to Denver Bureau concerns about the imminent transfer. He then notified Clements he couldn’t deliver the packet to the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington until local FBI concerns were resolved. The FBI, of course, as a part of the Justice Department would have had ample opportunity to speak up during this next step in the process. When confronted with the email alleging he picked up the packet, Hollenbeck resorted to the “I have to check my calendar” defense.

Two months later Clements would reverse his decision and deny a transfer with kudos from the Governor’s attorney, Jack Finlaw, for having “done the right thing.” We will probably never know what transpired during those intervening eight weeks, but we do know that Hollenbeck helped draft the ultimate denial. Less than a week later Clements was dead — a coincidence for sure, but no evidence of a conspiracy. The closing statements by both sides were surprising.

Tomsic abandoned all the groundwork she had been laying over the previous two days of testimony and lodged an emotional appeal for “doing the right thing for the victim.” The victim, of course, was the Indonesian maid allegedly sexually assaulted by al-Turki. Tomsic failed to convince the original jury of assault, and they opted for the lesser included charge of unwanted sexual contact. What the jury probably didn’t know was that all sexual violence charges in Colorado involve a requirement for lifetime monitoring. Undoubtedly, the victim was mistreated as an employee, who lived under conditions that would have offended both OSHA and the Department of Labor. Al-Turki failed to renew her work visa and was originally arrested for an immigration violation. Through nearly a dozen interviews the victim never alleged any sexual imposition or impropriety. Consequently, she was scheduled for deportation. Yet, she wanted to remain here and was advised she would be eligible for special treatment under the terms of the violence against women provisions of federal law. Miraculously, she recovered vivid memories of abuse and mistreatment.

In her summation she characterized the case as a challenge to the sanctity of respect for the law. If you are wealthy enough and your attorneys powerful enough can you extract special treatment from our courts? Then she slipped in the political knife, “…even if some of your attorneys are friendly with the Governor, perhaps even contributed to his campaigns?” The defense pointed out the unusual and extraordinary circumstances in this case, observing that al-Turki would remain in custody for another 15 months even if he were immediately transferred to Saudi. Judge Hannen conducted the original trial and is probably better suited to make a judgment than anyone. He did not tip his hand, but the stakes are large. If he denies probation, the court fight will move into federal courts and slip out of Colorado hands. If he recommends a transfer, his decision will almost certainly be appealed. Either way, Homaidan al-Turki faces several more years in prison. The wheels of American justice grind slowly.

It is often accepted as a matter of fact in our democracy that the “Thin Blue Line” of police and prosecutors stands between the safety of our people and the anarchy of lawlessness. And, in some instances, that has been and remains true. It is equally true, however, that collusion between police, prosecutors, corrections and a craven media has frequently painted a suspect with the “Thick Blue Brush” of unwarranted suspicion and unfounded guilt. As “Project Innocence” has repeatedly proven, God save the man or woman who confronts the locked arms of a justice system more devoted to scoring victories than administering justice. There is something profoundly wrong about the fact that a country with 5 percent of the world’s population jails 25 percent of its prisoners.

Al-Turki has lost the benefits that accrued from his unquestionably good behavior in Colorado prisons — the incentive unit he resided in at Limon is now just a memory. In Tucson he is being held in an isolation cell where he had to clean feces and urine stains off the floor and walls. One attorney speculated this is calculated retaliation, but for what and by whom? Al-Turki is reportedly a man of considerable religious faith, the son of an Imam. Yet, after nearly nine years, I can’t help wondering when he will crack? And, if he does, how are the taxpayers of Colorado who are funding his private hell better off?

Miller Hudson is a contributing columnist for The Colorado Statesman. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.