Friday morning, after a few hours of restless sleep, Alex threw his legs over the side of the bed and sat there, contemplating what lay ahead. A few more days and it would all be over. He had been so immersed in the “trial tunnel” for the past few months that any semblance of a normal life had disappeared. He woke up thinking about the case. He went to bed thinking about the case. It seemed like he spent every waking moment working on it.
He allowed himself a few minutes to think about how great it would be when the trial was over and he could enjoy the holiday season. He could sleep in. He could decorate his condo and buy some presents. By Christmas Day, Khalid would be either a free man or facing life behind bars. Nara would either be safe and free to live her life, or she would be in hiding, constantly looking over her shoulder for the deadly agents of Hezbollah.
Today’s witness would probably decide both Khalid’s and Nara’s fate.
The pressure of the challenge started squeezing in on Alex, constricting his chest. He blew out a deep breath and tried to relax.
It was time for some strong coffee.***
Fatih Mahdi looked like he had aged ten years since the preliminary hearing. He stood in the well of the courtroom dressed in his traditional Muslim garb and affirmed that he would tell the truth. He had dark circles under his eyes and looked at once both sad and determined. His black beard, dark complexion, and receding hairline played into the Muslim stereotype. But when Mahdi testified, he mumbled softly, and the spectators in the courtroom leaned forward and strained to hear. Several times, Taj Deegan asked him to speak up.
The prosecutor made every attempt to personalize Mahdi, but he was not cooperating. He never looked at the jury and didn’t allow himself to relax. His broad shoulders slumped forward, and he hunched over the microphone.
The substance of his testimony was about what Alex expected. He told the jury how he met Ja’dah and how devoted she had been to the Muslim faith. He described their life together.
“Did you love her?” Taj Deegan asked.
Mahdi’s life centered around his work and the mosque. Deegan did a good job of portraying him as deeply religious but not fanatical.
Mahdi testified about his friendship with Khalid and Ghaniyah Mobassar. They had been through a lot together in Lebanon. He had helped Khalid mourn the loss of two sons, and he described the way those losses affected Khalid.
He also testified about how Khalid’s views as the imam in the Norfolk mosque became increasingly unorthodox. Though Khalid was his dear friend, Fatih Mahdi had led the opposition to certain doctrines that Fatih considered heretical. According to Fatih, the more resistance Khalid Mobassar encountered, the more strident and adamant he became. Those in the mosque who opposed Khalid were usually forced out.
“About six months before the death of your wife, it seems you stopped being critical of Mr. Mobassar. Can you tell the jury what happened?”
Fatih hesitated at the question, looking down to collect his thoughts. “I sensed that all of the dissension and turmoil was driving my wife away from the faith,” Fatih said. He kept his eyes on Taj Deegan, who had stationed herself next to the jury box.
“I still believed that Khalid was wrong, but I realized that if I continued to fight, I might lose both a friend and my wife. I continued to debate things with Khalid privately, but I chose to cease any public criticism. I prayed instead that Allah would show him the way.”
As Fatih testified, Alex studied the jury and didn’t like what he saw. The whole tenor of the courtroom seemed to be one of empathy and respect. The man certainly didn’t come across as a jihadist who would order an honor killing of his own wife.
“I’d like to turn your attention now to the events surrounding the death of your wife,” Taj Deegan said. She spoke softly, helping to sustain the courtroom mood. “Please tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury how you learned that Ja’dah had converted to the Christian faith.”
For the next several minutes, Fatih talked about the changes he saw in his wife and how he had followed her one Saturday night to Beach Bible Church. He seemed genuinely ashamed of what he had done. When he talked about seeing Ja’dah with Martin Burns, his face reflected the lingering memory of the heartache he had experienced. She had rejected both her husband and her faith, Fatih said, but he still loved her.
One of the reasons he had sought counsel from Khalid was because he hoped Khalid’s more progressive view of the faith might break through his wife’s strong reservations. In Fatih’s mind, he had brought his wife to America in order to help Americans find the Muslim faith. Instead, he felt like the American culture and the Western brand of Christianity had corrupted her.
Taj Deegan had the witness describe in detail his conversation with Khalid and his reaction when he learned that his wife had been beheaded. Fatih spoke in soft and measured tones about learning of his wife’s death and the evidence that pointed to his good friend as the one who ordered her killing. He shed no tears but seemed like a man who was still in shock. If he had broken down and cried during his testimony, it would have come across as phony. But to Alex’s great chagrin, Mahdi’s subdued answers and perplexed demeanor came across as very genuine.
Shannon leaned over to Alex. “He makes a better witness than I thought he would.”
“I know,” Alex whispered back.
Taj Deegan checked her notes to ensure that she hadn’t missed anything. “One last question. There are those who say your brand of the Muslim faith is demeaning to women and fosters honor killings. What do you say to that?”
Fatih Mahdi squared his jaw and looked directly at Taj Deegan. “The great Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, was most respectful to women. True followers of Mohammed would never oppress women and would certainly never sanction something as heinous as honor killings. Only those who falsely claim the name of Allah and distort the Qur’an engage in such things.”
“Thank you,” Taj Deegan said. “I have no further questions.”
“Does defense counsel have any cross-examination?” Judge Rosenthal asked.
“I might have a few questions,” Alex said.
The judge gave Alex a wry smile. “Perhaps before we get started, we should take a ten-minute break.”