Mohamad Hammoud’s story is about a man who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, when war, poverty, and destruction were the norm. The war began in the region before he was born. In 1975, two years after his birth, a full scale civil war erupted that devastated his country. When Mohamad was nine, Israel invaded Lebanon and bombed his neighborhood. At age thirteen, Mohamad’s father died due to illness, leaving his family without financial support. During his childhood, Mohamad was deprived of many of the necessities that most children in the west enjoy, such as medical care and new clothes. Even a toy would have been a rare luxury.
From the day of his birth until the day of his departure from Lebanon at the age of 18, Mohamad lived in the midst of civil war, internal conflicts, poverty, foreign occupation, and death. To escape the war, many Lebanese immigrated to the West. Mohamad’s three older brothers and two sisters immigrated to Germany and America, as well.
Because of the special bond that Mohamad developed with his mother and siblings after his father’s death, he was reluctant to leave them and initially rejected the idea of emigration to America despite the hard life he had endured. However, because Mohamad’s mother was concerned about her son’s life and his opportunities in Lebanon, she insisted Mohamad immigrate to America. Additionally, his brother, who was studying computer engineering in Charlotte, North Carolina, coaxed him to come live with him in America. In 1989 at the age of 16, Mohamad acquiesced to leave his family and come to live a better life in America.
Then, the American embassy in Lebanon was closed. Mohamad went several times to Damascus, Syria, to obtain a visa but was denied each time. When he lost hope of obtaining a visa, Mohamad and his two cousins traveled to Venezuela, where his uncles lived. He stayed there with his uncles for forty days before embarking for America.
In America, Mohamad resided with his two older brothers, Chawki and Bassam, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Like his fellow Lebanese, he played soccer and joined a public social prayer gathering that was held at the homes of the community members because the community did not have a mosque.
Mohamad also worked as a delivery driver for Domino’s pizza while he attended college. The money he earned went toward his living expenses, but he was also able to send some support to his family in Lebanon. He was very grateful that he was finally able to help his family financially.
Mohamad enjoyed a peaceful life in America and adjusted well to the new culture. He joined sports clubs, including Taekwondo school, where he not only learned self-defense, but also learned about the kindness and respect of the American people. He appreciated the other students’ attitudes. They welcomed him and made him feel like one of them. They cheered Mohamad as much as they might cheer Mike and John. He loved America and its democracy, and he felt secure when he spoke his mind about events in Lebanon. He did not fear persecution for his political views.
In 1999, Mohamad began to experience financial pressure as he had already spent four years away from his family yet had been unable to improve their financial situation. Then, he learned of a scheme in which some people were avoiding paying the tobacco tax by purchasing cigarettes in North Carolina, where he lived, and selling them in Michigan, where his friends and family lived. Although illegal, Mohamad considered this to be a relatively easy and harmless way to improve his financial situation with minimal consequences: perhaps a fine if caught, but certainly no prison time. Unwisely, he got involved, but after two years, he quit the cigarette tax evasion scheme. He learned it was not as profitable as he had previously believed, nor was it the kind of business that he wanted to participate in. He made this decision two years before he was aware of any government investigation. In the same year, Mohamad moved a step closer to becoming an American citizen. He received his green card, which made it possible for him to visit his family in Lebanon.
The American Dream That Became a Nightmare
After Mohamad returned from a visit to Lebanon in 1999, he and his wife Angie and a friend were able to get a bank loan with the help of the Small Business Administration (SBA). They invested the loan proceeds in a convenience store gas station. The store proved to be more profitable than his previous job, and his “American Dream” began to become a reality.
Sadly, his dream unexpectedly turned into a nightmare. In July of 2000, two years after Mohamad quit selling cigarettes, he, his wife, two brothers, three cousins, and another associate, Said Harb, were arrested and charged with immigration violations, money laundering (for wiring money from Michigan to North Carolina), and conspiring to sell cigarettes to out-of-state customers.
Surprisingly, on the day of their arrests, the government announced that it had arrested members of a Hezbollah terrorist sleeper cell that was financing Hezbollah in Lebanon! Yet, none of the defendants were charged in connection with a “Charlotte Hezbollah Cell” at the time. It was nearly a year later when the government added new charges: Mohamad as the leader of the “Charlotte Hezbollah Cell” and Said Harb and the other defendants as being members. Additionally, Said was charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization, bribing government officials, and other serious charges. Said Harb was the only one charged who faced a possible life prison sentence.
After five years of extensive investigation, both before and after the arrests, the government still did not have any evidence to charge Mohamad with providing material support to Hezbollah- because it simply did not exist. The government’s investigation—pen registers, wire taps of thousands of phone calls, mail covers, over 750 bank subpoenas, subpoenas for business records, surveillance with state law enforcement, vehicle records, rental records, multiple pole cameras placed at various locations with 24-hour taped surveillance of the defendant’s home—yielded nothing.
Just five months after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Said Harb hastened to secure a lucrative plea deal for himself. Said was represented by a “good” defense team who recognized, that the new attitude towards Muslims would be very detrimental, and who understood the slim chances of winning a trial when facing such hostile sentiments. They negotiated a deal in which Said would agree to testify that Mohamad had sent $3,500 with Said to Harake, a Hezbollah member and a friend of Mohamad in Lebanon. In return for this testimony, the prosecution would fulfill Said Harb’s lifelong dream: they would bring twelve members of Said’s family to live in America, something Said had not been able to achieve on his own despite spending tens of thousands of dollars. Said testified to this fact during the trial. He would also only face a forty-one month sentence rather than the possible life sentence. Clearly, this deal was extremely motivational for Said. When the deal was sealed, the government simply substituted Mohamad in Said’s former place.
Two months later, Mohamad and his brother went to trial. The other defendants received time-served sentences. They simply signed plea agreements, were sentenced, and went home.
During the trial, Said Harb’s testimony was the only evidence the government had against Mohamad to support the charge of providing material support to a terrorist organization. The prosecutor, however, faced a critical problem. While he was preparing for trial against Said Harb and other defendants, he interviewed several people who all indicated that Said was a liar, a manipulator, a cheater, and a person who could not be trusted. The Appellate Judge Gregory confirmed the same in his 2004 opinion. Six of these witnesses testified at the trial to these character flaws. Indeed, during the trial, Said Harb proved these witnesses to be correct. His testimony at the trial significantly contradicted his pretrial statement to the FBI.
The lead prosecutor, Mr. Kenneth Bell, a former United States Congress candidate with over 18 years of experience as a prosecutor, was looking forward to retiring from his government job as a “champ”. He realized the importance of Mohamad’s case to cap his career. Mohamad was the first Muslim and Middle Easterner who went to trial for material support of a terrorist organization following the tragedy of 9/11. Thus, Mr. Bell chose the case and admitted his motive in doing so—as he put it: “I knew this was the case of a lifetime… It was a career maker….” (Lightning Out of Lebanon, page 183). Mr. Bell took advantage of the 9/11 tragedy to enhance his career.
Mr. Bell was fully aware of the credibility issues that his key witness was facing, but with his long experience as a prosecutor, he knew exactly how to present evidence to distract the jury and take their focus away from Said Harb’s credibility and character. Mr. Bell relied on the animosity and distrust toward Muslims following the September 11 tragedy. He aroused the jury’s anger and disgust, evoking a ‘patriotic’ attitude that pervaded their minds and influenced their consideration of the evidence and ultimately biased their verdict.
Mr. Bell successfully persuaded the jury that it was their duty to keep America safe from another attack by convicting Mohamad. The effectiveness of his fervor could be seen by one member of the jury who brought her own American flag to the table in the jury room to express her patriotism, as reported by Fox News (Blood Money).
Mohamad was convicted, and in 2003 was sentenced to 155 years in prison. Mr. Bell, on the other hand, quit his government job and went on to harvest the fruit of his “career maker” by working for one of the biggest firms in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a defense lawyer! (Reported by Charlotte.com, May 03/2003)
Mohamad appealed, and after years of hope, prayer, and much hard work by both his lead attorney Mr. James McLaughlin and Mr. Stanley Cohen, he was resentenced to 30 years. These attorneys worked without payment to correct a gross injustice and to achieve a more reasonable sentence for Mohamad.
Justice Was Not Served
At the resentencing, Mohamad’s attorney presented a tremendous amount of new evidence showing that his adherence to the teachings of Sayyed Fadlallah had nothing to do with Hezbollah, that his conduct was completely inconsistent with being an operative for Hezbollah, and that Mr. Levitt did not know what he was talking about. The Defense put on an overwhelming statistical case that any sentence over 97 months was absolutely inconsistent with every other terrorism financing case ever decided and with most other terrorism cases. Nonetheless, with no rebuttal evidence from the government that would be admissible at trial, the district judge tried to sentence Mohamad to 35 years, but a few minutes later realized, as a matter of law, he could not give him more than 30 years.
Searching for reasons to impose a longer sentence on Mohamad but knowing that the evidence and the statistics on sentencing were against a long incarceration, the Court relied on factors like what Mohamad might have learned in prison that might make him a danger to society, even from Lebanon. The Court proceeded from this supposition even though there was absolutely no evidence in the record to support the idea that Mohamad had learned anything or done anything in prison that might indicate he would be a threat to anyone. In fact, Mohamad had a clean disciplinary record, had gotten an associate’s degree in prison, and had given a long allocution about all of the good things he had learned.
Sadly, the district judge decided Mohamad’s sentencing a day before the sentencing hearing was final. Mohamad was disappointed when he discovered that the Statement of Reasoning for sentencing was dated on the first day of the sentencing hearing. Hence, although the Judge went through the sentencing hearing protocol, he did not consider any of the arguments that were made on the second day, including Mohamad’s allocution.
In that allocution, Mohamad stated that in the 10 years and 6 months he had spent in prison away from his family and waiting to return to them, he had learned a lot. He stated that he had a lot of time to think about everything he had done, his lost freedom, and his shame at having justified his violations of the law because there was no victim. He told the District Court that people change and grow wiser, and that, like every other human, he had made mistakes, but that every day he had learned something. In prison he joined every program he could join and was studying business administration. He acknowledged that he had already paid a “big price.” Mohamad talked about making his elderly mother, the most important person in his life, suffer day and night. He also talked about the loss of the wife he loved and the loss of everything except for hope and faith.
Alas! The judge did not consider any of Mohamad’s heartfelt apology and remorse because he had already written his decision a day before.
Mohamad Pleaded for Justice
After his conviction and sentencing, Mohamad desperately sought justice. He wrote letters to the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), to the district judge, and to the United States District Attorney.
Mohamad was convinced that his conviction and the draconian 155-years sentence were not based upon evidence. As noted earlier, there was no evidence that Mohamad sent any funds to Hezbollah, let alone to support any violent activity attributed to Hezbollah. This is an unequivocal fact; the trial judge acknowledged on the record that there was no such evidence (See Trial and Conviction). Rather, Mohamad’s conviction was due to the prosecutor’s skilled manipulation of the jury by equating the tragedy of 9/11 with Mohamad’s conduct and by inflaming the passions of the jury (See Prosecutorial Misconduct). Additionally, Mohamad’s inexperienced trial counsel was no match for the polished skills of the prosecutor.
In his first letter, Mohamad reported the unethical tactics which were employed in his prosecution. He explained to the OPR how the ambitious prosecutor and former politician, Mr. Kenneth Bell, exploited the tragedy of September 11 to crown his career. Instead of seeking justice, as required by law, Mr. Bell manipulated the jury with the sad events of 9/11 to obtain a conviction. He went out of his way to evoke patriotic emotion to persuade the jury to convict Mohamad through fear rather than by sound evidence.
Mr. Bell allowed witnesses to testify falsely under oath, fabricated evidence himself, and misquoted witnesses in his closing argument to the jury. To demonstrate Mr. Bell’s true motive in prosecuting the case, Mohamad cited a quotation of Mr. Bell’s interview with the author of Lightning Out of Lebanon, in which Mr. Bell proudly stated: “I knew this was the case of a lifetime. It was a career maker.”
In his letter, Mohamad also reasserted his innocence and pleaded that the OPR investigate his case.
Letters to The District Judge
When Mohamad learned that Mr. Bell resigned his government job to harvest the fruit of his “career maker” by working for one of the biggest law firms in Charlotte, North Carolina, he breathed a sigh of relief and prayed that the new prosecutors would be just.
Unfortunately, Mohamad’s optimism rapidly vanished. He was incredulous that the new prosecutors, Mr. David Brown and Mr. Craig Randall, filed a brief in the court seeking a life sentence for Mohamad, notwithstanding his nonviolent charges and the fact that hundreds of individuals have been convicted on similar or worse charges, but none have received a sentence exceeding 10 years. Moreover, their brief was far worse than that of Mr. Bell. Their egregious misrepresentation and exaggeration significantly exceeded Mr. Bell’s. They used excerpts from the trial transcripts out of context and even fabricated quotes that had never actually been uttered. Thus, in absence of any evidence that indicated Mohamad was a fanatic terrorist, they invented their own evidence to portray Mohamad as such. Hence, Mohamad again wrote to the district judge.
In his first letter to the district judge, Mohamad complained about the illegal method that the first prosecutor had used to convict him. Mohamad explained how the prosecutor manipulated the events of 9/11, misquoted witnesses, and fabricated evidence to win a conviction that would later enhance Mr. Bell’s career. Mohamad also informed the district judge of his willingness to be interviewed by the government and to take a polygraph test to prove that he was not a Hezbollah member, nor did he send funds to Hezbollah.
In his second letter to the district judge, Mohamad reiterated the above. Additionally, he enumerated each of the misquotations and fabrications in the new prosecutor’s brief side-by-side with the correct citation to demonstrate their fraud. Then Mohamad suggested to the judge the prosecutors had to fabricate evidence to portray him as a terrorist was evidence that he was not.
Again, Mohamad requested that the court order the government to interview him to substantiate his assertion that he was not a Hezbollah member, nor did he send funds to Hezbollah.
Mohamad’s Letter to Ms. Anne M. Tompkins, United District Attorney. (USDA.)
As the resentencing date approached, Mohamad’s anxiety increased. He was worried that the justice system that failed him the first time would fail him again.
At the first sentencing, although the district judge acknowledged that there was no evidence that Mohamad supported Hezbollah’s violent activity, he followed the government’s recommendation nonetheless and sentenced Mohamad to 155 years. Since the same judge presided again, could Mohamad expect anything but a life in prison this time?
Thus, Mohamad wrote to Ms. Tompkins, a newly inaugurated USDA and the head of the prosecutor’s office. In the letter, Mohamad pleaded that she review his case based on its facts away from the media propaganda and the prosecution’s misrepresentation. Further, he suggested that before her office deprives Mohamad of the rest of his life’s liberty, they should interview him and give him a polygraph test to determine whether he was a Hezbollah financial supporter or not. There was no response.
Then Mohamad’s attorney wrote an eloquent letter on his behalf to Ms. Ann Tomkins in which he explained the circumstances of Mohamad’s life and his involvement in the cigarette tax evasion. Additionally, he expounded on the nature of the non-violent charges that Mohamad was charged with and questioned the significant sentencing disparity between him and similarly situated defendants. He provided her with several cases that demonstrated this. Moreover, he reiterated the same issue that Mohamad raised in his previous letters. There was no response.