Last Friday in Sacramento, U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes submitted a 116-page recommendation that the conviction of Hamid Hayat be vacated. It was Barnes’ latest attempt to free Hayat, convicted in 2006 of providing support to terrorists, in the first major prosecution of terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.
Barnes’ ruling charges that Hayat’s lawyer Wazhma Mojaddidi, a former president of the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations in Sacramento, put on an ineffective defense for Hayat. After Friday’s ruling, Mojaddidi told the Sacramento Bee, “I am elated to hear that he could be freed soon after unjustly spending so many years in prison.”
Sacramento CAIR executive director Basim Elkarra said in a statement that Hayat “did not receive a fair trial” and Dennis Riordan of Hayat’s defense team opined that Barnes’ ruling was “effectively a finding of actual innocence.” The courts have established otherwise and Friday’s ruling was the latest episode in a long campaign of strange judicial rulings and bizarre courtroom capers.
CAIR and the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA) judge-shopped Deborah Barnes, a relative newcomer to California’s Eastern District. Barnes spent much of her career in the office of California’s attorney general, where she worked on environmental issues. In effect, the judge would become a member of Hayat’s legal team.
Barnes’ June 7, 2017 order raised “serious questions concerning the competency of the defense.” That was the very defense Hayat’s team wanted, led by CAIR rising star Wazhma Mojaddidi. After she failed, the judge wasn’t done, and in January of 2018 Barnes ordered an evidentiary hearing on the Hayat case that proved revealing on several fronts.
CAIR’s Basim Elkarra again cited concerns that Hayat “did not receive a fair trial.” MLFA executive director Khalil Meek argued that “Hayat was essentially convicted for possessing a prayer written on paper that asked God for protection.” Dennis Riordan went on record that “this motion to vacate Hayat’s conviction is currently the best vehicle for exposing the harmful effects of anti-Muslim bias in American courtrooms.” As the facts showed, it was more about Muslim hatred of Americans.
Hamid Hamyat was convicted in 2006 for aiding terrorists and lying to the FBI. In 2013 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his conviction and in 2014 U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell denied Hayat’s motion for summary judgment to vacate his conviction. Following that ruling, former U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, who headed Hayat’s 2006 prosecution, told reporters it was “a righteous prosecution and a just result.”
In 2007, federal authorities argued against a new trial for Hayat and as their legal brief noted, Hayat claimed that jihad was the duty of all Muslims, his motive for attending the terrorist training camp. In recorded interviews, Hayat gleefully stated he was “so pleased” that jihadis had cut Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl “into pieces.” Hayat said Pearl “was Jewish” and that as a result of this “good job,” now “they can’t send one Jewish person to Pakistan.”
In January 2018, Wazhma Mojaddidi denied that she was to blame for losing the case. Hayat’s attorneys wanted family members to testify by video from Pakistan. For prosecutors, that raised questions about how the witnesses would be sworn in, and the consequences if they lied.
Judge Barnes wondered if they could take an oath under Pakistani law, not valid in the United States and which Barnes did not swear to uphold. That brought more objections from prosecutors, but as Barnes explained, “the parties are free to argue the effect of the oath, and any penalties for false testimony, in their briefing after all the evidence is heard.”
Barnes scheduled two nights of testimony for the Pakistani witnesses, using an encrypted federal court videoconferencing system. All the witnesses testified that Hamid Hayat was a great guy and could not have attended a terrorist training camp. The hearing did not render a new trial or vacate Hayat’s conviction, but Deborah Barnes was not about to give up.
Her new 116-page recommendation now goes before judge Garland Burrell, who already denied the motion to vacate. Original prosecutor, McGregor Scott, once again the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, told reporters, “Mr. Hayat received effective representation at trial and that his conviction by a jury, subsequently affirmed by the 9th Circuit, is completely valid.” Even so, an appeal might settle some issues.
Judge Deborah Barnes’ performance review of Wazhma Mojaddidi, who denies she was incompetent, supposedly establishes the innocence of Hamid Hayat. This judge was willing to allow Islam-based Pakistani law to intrude in an American courtroom, and she authorized video testimony from Pakistan, with no consequences for falsification.
Some higher court needs to determine how all that conforms with U.S. law, the Constitution of the United States, and whether it serves the interests of justice. A performance review for Deborah Barnes might also be in order. Any observer could be forgiven for believing the judge should be removed from the case or relieved of her job.
Meanwhile, Hamid Hayat is due for release in May 2026.