29

Alex finished his hearing in Virginia Beach Circuit Court, packed his briefcase, and headed toward the exit. To his surprise, Taj Deegan was waiting in the back row. With all the events surrounding the honor killings, the sight of the chief deputy for the commonwealth’s attorney made his stomach clench.

She stood. “Got a minute?”

Alex checked his watch, as if the president might be waiting in the hallway. “I don’t have long,” he said.

The two found an empty conference room adjacent to the courtroom. Neither lawyer spoke as they took their seats. Alex noted that Taj didn’t have her briefcase or even a legal pad with her.

Taj had the look of someone you could trust. She wasn’t a flashy dresser-black suit, white blouse, a pair of black flats-and she had a quick smile, showing lots of perfect white teeth. She was slightly overweight with a rounded chin, intense almond eyes, and a pair of small black reading glasses that seemed more like a prop. She looked to be in her late thirties, and Alex knew she was the single mom of a son and daughter who were both in elementary school. He also knew that Taj was always being touted for this judgeship or that one. Politicians were enamored with the story of a young African American woman who had earned her GED, worked her way through college while her mom helped with the kids, and attended law school at night while working for a private security company.

“Alex, I want you to know that we’ve just arrested Khalid Mobassar,” she said, watching him for a reaction.

Alex took the news stoically, though his mind started churning with questions.

“As Mobassar’s attorney, sooner or later you’d be entitled to the disclosures I’m about to make. I thought if I told you about the evidence now, it might help you evaluate whether or not to stay on the case.”

Alex’s suspicions were on high alert. Deegan played fair, but she was known for her take-no-prisoners approach to high-profile cases. To Alex’s knowledge, she had never lost a murder case.

“I’ve checked you out,” Deegan continued, “and I knew your grandfather pretty well. I don’t want to see you get sucked into a case like this without knowing what you’re getting into. There are plenty of lawyers out there who can represent this guy.”

She seemed sincere, but Alex didn’t respond immediately. The possibility that this was some kind of trick crossed his mind, but he dismissed it; he wasn’t exactly known as the top criminal defense attorney in the area. If this was a tactical move, it wasn’t a very smart one.

Deegan shifted in her seat and leaned forward. “What I’m going to tell you is off the record. This conference never happened. If you stay on the case, you’ll get all this information through formal channels. Until then, it’s entirely confidential.”

“Okay.”

“For starters, your man is on the DOJ’s list for foreign nationals with terrorist connections. As a result, his phone and text messages have been tapped and his e-mails monitored under the Patriot Act since he came into the country. It took us forty-eight hours to work through the Feds’ red tape, but we eventually got the messages from your client’s allegedly missing cell phone.”

Khalid’s cell phone was missing? Alex swallowed hard, but he didn’t break eye contact with the prosecutor.

“On June 2, your client sent two text messages to a cell phone purchased a week earlier by a man in northern Virginia using an alias. We used GPS positioning data from the cell phone signals and traced the location of that anonymous cell phone on the night of the murders. It’s the killer’s cell phone, Alex. We traced the man using it from Petersburg to Virginia Beach and then to Sandbridge. Later that night, the cell phone was near the federal preserve where the bodies were buried.”

Alex felt his mouth go dry. He liked Khalid and found it hard to imagine that his client had been part of this gruesome killing. “What did the messages say?”

“The first message explained that Ja’dah Fatima Mahdi had converted to Christianity and was attending Christian services with a man whom Khalid did not identify, that Ja’dah had defiled herself with this man, disgraced her family, and dishonored Allah. The message told the killer that if Ja’dah was unwilling to repent and return to the Muslim faith, the honor of her family must be restored. That’s pretty much an exact quote, Alex-that the honor of her family had to be restored.”

Taj looked at Alex, and he saw her measuring his reaction. “The second message told the killer that he would find Ja’dah at the Beach Bible Church on Saturday night. It contained a picture of Ja’dah and Martin Burns.”

The information stunned Alex. It sounded like an airtight case. “So you’ve got two text messages from my client’s phone to a phone whose owner is unknown.” He tried to sound unimpressed. “And that’s your case?”

“There’s more,” Taj said matter-of-factly.

Alex dropped the pretenses. “I’m listening.”

“Fatih Mahdi, Ja’dah Mahdi’s husband, will testify that the only person he told about his wife’s conversion to Christianity was your client. After Fatih found out about the text messages, he said he would be willing to waive the priest-penitent privilege and testify about what was said in his conversation with your client.”

Alex was beginning to feel like a boxer, doubled over in a corner, taking one body blow after another. He couldn’t think of a single counterpunch.

And still Deegan wasn’t done. “Using a search warrant, we gained access to your client’s and the mosque’s banking accounts between the time of the text messages ordering the killings and the date of the murders. During that time, the mosque’s weekly deposits were down by about 50 percent. About $20,000 was diverted from the mosque’s operating account into the mosque’s building fund, and a few days before the killings, there was a $20,000 wire from that fund to a bank account in Lebanon. The wire was authorized online by Mr. Mobassar using his account password.”

This is what Alex hated about criminal law-the reason he had virtually abandoned the field. The prosecutors held all the cards. The best ones, like Taj Deegan, didn’t file charges unless they knew the case was a slam dunk. From day one he would be fighting a losing battle, looking for loopholes, trying to keep his client out of a life sentence.

Which would be bad enough in a normal case. But in this one, the bad publicity alone would threaten what was left of his personal-injury practice.

“Why are you telling me this now?” Alex asked.

Taj leaned forward, her intense stare conveying the moral authority of someone who believed in her position- truly believed. A crusader. “This guy is an animal,” Taj said. “He had an innocent woman beheaded, Alex. And he had Martin Burns buried alive.” She narrowed her eyes. “Buried alive. Tied up and thrown into a grave with his beheaded girlfriend, where he was buried one shovelful at a time.”

Alex had no comeback for this. The facts were indisputably gruesome.

“This is going to be ugly, Alex, and the press is going to be all over it. Our worst fears about fundamentalist Muslims are personified by Mr. Mobassar. To an unscrupulous criminal defense lawyer, a boondoggle like this case could be a way to get his name in lights so other thugs will hire him. But you don’t really strike me as that sort of guy.”

Taj took a breath and seemed to relax a little. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do-and someone’s got to represent this guy. But out of respect for your grandfather, I thought I should let you know what you’re up against before you get in too deep.”

Alex sincerely thanked Taj and told her he’d take the information into consideration. They shook hands, and he decided to get in at least one little jab before he left. “Does that mean you won’t be offering me a plea bargain?”

Taj Deegan did not smile. “Whether you stay in this case or not, I’m going after Mobassar with everything I have,” she promised.

“I’m kidding,” Alex said. “I really do appreciate the heads-up.”

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