RALEIGH, N.C. -- A federal jury on Thursday convicted a 28-year-old inmate accused of orchestrating a murder-for-hire plot against witnesses in his terror case on nine counts.
The trial of the native Kosovan came to a rancorous close Wednesday in keeping with the way it began. The jury got the case Thursday morning and deliberated for about an hour before rendering their guilty verdicts.
The trial was almost as bizarre as the allegations, with tapes of conversations with a jail snitch and a brother and special education teacher implicated in the scheme.
Hysen Sherifi, the 28-year-old defendant who represented himself, was about four sentences into his closing argument on Wednesday when Judge Earl Britt looked down from the bench and stopped the bearded man from espousing his religious belief "that all judgment belongs only to Allah."
"You may argue your guilt or innocence," Britt said, while the seven women and five men on the jury were present.
Few seconds passed before Sherifi retorted: "We are enemies and we will never be friends until you fight for Allah."
Britt, who had warned Sherifi during his rambling opening statement Monday to stick to facts of the case, directed the defendant to stop.
"You may not continue with these religious themes, preaching, whatever it is you are attempting to do," Britt said.
"I am warning you," Sherifi responded.
Britt sent the jury out of the room, had a few more verbal exchanges with Sherifi, and then had U.S. marshals handcuff him and remove him from the courtroom to a jail cell. Closed circuit cameras were supposed to offer him a view into what was going on inside the courtroom, but technical difficulties with establishing a two-way courtroom connection prompted the judge to release the jury late in the afternoon.
For four days, Sherifi was on trial on charges that he plotted the beheadings of three informants who testified against him in an earlier terror case.
Sherifi was convicted a year ago of conspiring to commit terror at home and abroad. In his murder-for-hire trial, he has asked only a few questions of witnesses. He offered no input in selection of the jury that decided his fate.
On Wednesday, the defendant's younger brother Shkumbin Sherifi, 22, took the stand, as did Nevine Aly Elshiekh, the 47-year-old special education teacher from Raleigh. Both Elshiekh and the younger Sherifi have pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit murder-for-hire and agreed to testify truthfully in exchange for dismissal of other charges filed against them.
Elshiekh testified that she found out about the scheme on Jan. 2, 20 days before her arrest. She was told about it by Desiree Tate, an informant working with federal investigators.
Elshiekh: I was wooed
Elshiekh had gotten to know Hysen Sherifi after his terror-case trial by first writing him letters of support, as did others from the Triangle Muslim community. One of the other defendants in the terror case had been a student of Elshiekh's and she attended five days of his trial.
At the time, Elshiekh was suffering from self-doubt and other emotional anxieties associated with her recent divorce.
Hysen Sherifi responded to her letters, first with words of appreciation, then with romantic offerings, she said.
"Mr. Sherifi was flattering and proposed marriage," Elshiekh testified on Wednesday. "We had discussions about that."
The two began talking by phone calls arranged by a woman working with federal agents and visits to the jail followed.
The Sherifis moved to Raleigh in 1999 from Kosovo as war refugees, according to the testimony. The family escaped the war-torn Balkans for a new home in the Triangle that they knew about from a cousin who already lived here.
The Sherifi parents worked late into the night, and in their early years Hysen Sherifi, the oldest of the five children, often was left in charge while their mother and father were out of the house.
Hysen Sherifi and his mother eventually had a falling out, locking horns over his increasingly strident religious beliefs. He moved into an apartment in Raleigh and began associating with the men that led to the 2009 terror case that rocked Johnston County and landed him in prison.
Late last year, according to witnesses in the murder-for-hire case, Hysen Sherifi came up with a scheme to have some of the witnesses killed.
Threats to terror cell
Anes Subasic, one of his co-defendants in the terror case was awaiting trial, and federal prosecutors contend that Hysen Sherifi planned to send photos from his arranged hits to Daniel Patrick Boyd, the alleged ringleader of the homegrown terror cell, and his sons. The goal, prosecutors contend, was to threaten them and their family and keep them from testifying at the Subasic trial and ultimately help his own attempt to win a new trial or freedom.
Sherifi, according to testimony, approached two people in prison before finding his way to David Crummy, a notorious drug dealer from Wilmington known for going to prosecutors with criminal tips in exchange for lighter sentences.
Crummy alerted federal agents and they began monitoring and taping Sherifi's conversations, actions and correspondence from inside New Hanover County jail.
Crummy wore a wire for investigators when he talked with Sherifi during prison-yard breaks and some of those tapes were played for jurors this week.
Shkumbin Sherifi, a graduate of Sanderson High School who took some classes at Wake Tech before his arrest, made several trips to New Hanover County Jail to visit his imprisoned brother.
The younger Sherifi testified that he balked at first at the idea of having witnesses killed, but eventually agreed to help gather money and meet with people in the Wilmington and Triangle areas for his brother.
Plan unnerves some
Elshiekh, nearly twice the age of Hysen Sherifi, had reached out to his family on several occasions late last year. She helped them collect character letters for his coming sentencing hearing on the terror convictions. She stayed with his cancer-stricken father while family members were gone for jail visits. And she tried to help the family raise money for what she thought was a defense fund.
In early January, when Elshiekh finally realized what Hysen Sherifi meant by "his project," her attorney Charles Swift said, she panicked.
"She was in a very vulnerable position," Swift, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in terrorism cases, said outside the federal courthouse in Raleigh on Wednesday. "At this point, she was romanced and confused."
Elshiekh tried to contact her father, a former N.C. State University professor, but he was in Egypt. Her sister was out of town.
Elshiekh was arrested on Jan. 22 and awaits sentencing for her guilty plea.
Hysen Sherifi asked her no questions on cross-examination, but her lawyer said she was ready if he did, particularly if he had asked her whether federal agents set them up.
"She would have told him, 'It was you,'?" Swift said. "This was not a case where the FBI started this conspiracy. This was a case where Hysen Sherifi started this plot."
Hysen Sherifi did not sit quietly after his brother's testimony. He had two very pointed questions in a case that highlights the use of confidential informants.
"Who created the tape?" Hysen Sherifi asked his brother, referring to recorded conversations that prosecutors used in their case against the defendant.
"The FBI," Shkumbin Sherifi said.
"So how are you guilty?" Hysen Sherifi asked his brother.
"I don't know how to answer that," Shkumbin Sherifi responded before marshals escorted him back to custody, where he awaits sentencing.
Copyright 2012 - The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
McClatchy-Tribune News Service