This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
Not All Who are Charged are Tried : The “Charged but Not Tried” Variable
A large goal of our project is to analyze how political violence is prosecuted in the U.S. and to eventually be able to determine how certain variables can predict how a defendant “is charged, prosecuted, and eventually sentenced in a court of law” (About tPP). This being said, it is extremely important for the variables of plea, verdict, length of prison sentence, life sentence, and death sentence to be accurate, organized, and uniform.
However, our team faces a lot of difficulties when it comes to sentencing details as we run into many cases where the defendant never reached a plea or received a verdict. We code cases like these as “charged but not tried” – the plea will be coded as “charged but not tried” if the defendant was indicted but not taken to trial, and the verdict will be coded as “charged but not tried” if the indictment is dropped before the trial or if “criminal proceedings cannot continue due to extenuating circumstances,” such as death or suicide.¹ In the variables of length of prison sentence, life sentence, and death sentence, a “#” is used to denote that the sentence is unknown because the defendant never went to trial.
Now, this might sound very simple and to the point, but you would be surprised about how many interesting cases we encounter that make coding these variables very complicated. Recently, I have run into many cases where the defendant never reached a trial; however, each of these cases is very different and can be quite complicated. A large majority of the cases we code never reach trial because the defendant is currently a fugitive on the run. More often than not, these defendants are on the run in different countries, such as Abdul Rahman Yasin², a co-conspirator in the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, who is believed to have been hiding out in Iraq, near Baghdad, for more than 25 years. Many of these fugitives are also included on the FBI’s most wanted list, such as Mustafa Ali Salat and his co-conspirators², who are wanted for providing material support to Al-Shabaab and for making arrangements for people to travel to Somalia.
One obvious reason why a defendant never reached trial is that they died or committed suicide before the plea, verdict, or sentencing. When this occurs, it is typically well documented, so the team is able to easily collect information in relation to the person’s death. In some cases, the defendant is actually killed by the U.S.; for example, Adam Yahiye Gadahn², also known as “Azzam the American” who appeared in multiple Al-Qaeda propaganda tapes, was charged in 2006 and continued to be a fugitive on the run in the Afghanistan/Pakistan area until he was killed by US drone strike in 2015.
Another typically well-documented reason why a defendant was never tried is that they are awaiting extradition; however, this can create problems in coding. Such as the 14 members of Hezbollah that were charged for the bombing of Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia², there are cases in which the foreign country is blocking extradition or refusing to extradite the defendants. This can create complications in coding because it can be a question of whether the case should be considered “charged but not tried” or just “pending.” Ultimately, we have coded these cases as “charged but not tried” because there is no evidence of these defendants being brought to trial any time in the foreseeable future.
Then there are cases that were dropped by the government or state for reasons such as coerced confessions or a lack of evidence. The cases that were dropped due to inadmissible confessions can be quite peculiar, like the case of the members of the Liberation Army of Rwanda whose charges were later dropped because evidence showed the defendants were tortured while imprisoned by Rwandan authorities.² The most peculiar of cases like these are those where the defendant is being held in Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. military prison. In these cases, a lot of the trials are held before a Military Commission, and the proceedings are not available to the public. This can create some issues as we do not really know what the status of the case is, if the defendant has reached trial yet, and sometimes even what the full charges are. Defendants held at Guantanamo are often the biggest threats to national security, such as those involved in the 9/11 attacks, so a large majority of the documents are sealed, creating obstacles in finding information.
The main problem we run into with charged but not tried cases is that some do not state the reasons why charges were dropped or the trial was never reached, while others do not contain state that the charges were dropped at all. These are the cases where the docket becomes a very important source file. One particular case that caused a lot of confusion was that of Mona Mohamed Atat and Issam Abdul-Hakim Berjaoui², who were accused of embezzling $438,000 and illegally wiring it to banks in Lebanon and Jordan. In this case, Berjaoui was eventually sentenced to 17 months in prison; however, Atat was never tried or sentenced. Looking at the docket, Atat is not mentioned past her indictment on June 24, 2004, while the docket follows Berjaoui’s case to his judgment on November 21, 2006. Considering the evidence (or the lack of evidence), we were led to conclude that Atat never reached trial and therefore should be coded as charged but not tried.
It is really important for our project to pay close attention to the cases in which the defendant never went to trial because the reasons why people never reach trial can create a pattern in why various political violence charges were dropped. The team must be more cognizant to include the reasons why a defendant was never tried in the ‘Additional Sentencing Details’ variable because knowing things like how many people’s charges were dismissed with prejudice versus without prejudice could give us more insight into how political violence is prosecuted, or not prosecuted, in the U.S.
- This language is drawn from tPP’s Codebook, version 4.06
- More information about this case can be found under “For More Information” section in order of how they appear in the article
For More Information:
- Abdul Rahman Yasin. (2017, May 22). Retrieved November 20, 2019, from Counter Extremism Project website: https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/abdul-rahman-yasin
- Fourteen Charged with Providing Material Support to Al-Shabaab [Government]. (2010, August 5). Retrieved November 20, 2019, from Department of Justice website: https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/fourteen-charged-providing-material-support-somalia-based-terrorist-organization-al-shabaab
- Adam Yahiye Gadahn. (2017, March 10). Retrieved November 20, 2019, from Counter Extremism Project website: https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/adam-gadahn
- Hezbollah bombing in Saudi Arabia. (2019, August 17). Retrieved November 20, 2019, from HISTORY website: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/saudi-arabia-khobar-towers-bombing-kills-19
- Mona Mohamed Atat and Issam Abdul-Hakim Berjaou [Crime and Justice News]. (2004, July 1). Retrieved November 20, 2019, from The Crime Report website: https://thecrimereport.org/2004/07/01/detroit-antiterror-authorities-bring-money-charges/
- About tPP – the Prosecution Project. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2019, from Miami University website: https://theprosecutionproject.org/about-tpp/
- Free Law Project. (n.d.). Docket for United States v. Atat, 2:03-cr-80104. Retrieved November 20, 2019, from CourtListener website: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/16349055/united-states-v-atat/