When Rosenthal gaveled the court back to order, the spectators fell unnaturally still. There was none of the usual whispering or shuffling around. The jury leaned forward, knowing the case could well be decided in the next few hours.
Alex felt his own palms moistening with sweat, his heart hammering against his chest. Breathe deeply; stay calm.
“Good morning, Mr. Mahdi.”
The jitters would go away when he drew first blood. Hopefully that wouldn’t take long.
“In your view, America should be governed by Sharia law; isn’t that right?”
Mahdi furrowed his brow. “America has a long tradition based on English common law,” he said. “It would not be practical to suggest that the laws of this country be overhauled to reflect the religious beliefs of a small minority of Muslims.”
“Nice tap dance,” Alex said, “but let’s try it again.”
Alex thought about how to best phrase the question. To him, a sustained objection was never the final word; it was only a suggestion to rephrase. “Isn’t it a goal of the Islamic Brotherhood to have every country where their members reside governed by Sharia law?”
Mahdi appeared to relax, as if he had just discovered the cause of an unfortunate misunderstanding. “Perhaps as an organization, that is one of the Brotherhood’s stated goals. But the Brotherhood is only espousing the belief that the Muslims who live in that country should have their own affairs governed by Sharia law in Sharia courts. And this vision is for sometime in the future, perhaps at a time when many in this country have turned to the Islamic faith and desire to have certain parts of their lives-such as marital disputes or financial disputes with other Muslims-resolved in Sharia courts.”
When Mahdi stopped for a breath, Alex started his next question, but Deegan jumped up to protest. “The witness wasn’t finished,” she said.
“Let the witness finish his answer,” Rosenthal admonished.
Alex waited, frustrated that the judge was interfering with his questioning.
“It’s the same idea the original colonists had in America,” Mahdi continued. “Blue laws. Prayers before legislative sessions. Even the oath most witnesses take before testifying. These are all reflections of the Christian faith. The Brotherhood is just saying that Muslims ought to be able to follow their own faith on certain legal matters. It may, for example, interest you to know that the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed that Britain should consider just such a system.”
“Are you done?” Alex asked.
“Good. Now let me ask you a yes or no question. Do you personally believe-not the Islamic Brotherhood and not the Archbishop of Canterbury but you, Fatih Mahdi-that America should be governed by Sharia law?”
Fatih shook his head. “At this time, no. Maybe someday-but only for those citizens who desire to be governed by Sharia.”
Not exactly a yes or no. But it was an answer Alex could live with.
He walked back to his counsel table and retrieved a copy of an e-mail that Mahdi had sent to a Chicago-area imam in 2008. Ramona had found it in her review of the mountain of Patriot Act documents produced by the government.
Alex handed a copy to Taj Deegan and had the clerk give a copy to the witness. Mahdi studied the document as if he had never laid eyes on it before.
“What is this document?” Alex asked.
“An e-mail I wrote to a leader of a mosque in Chicago.”
“At the time, the recipient of this e-mail was supporting Khalid’s ideas for reform; is that true?”
Mahdi looked at the document. “Yes.”
“Could you please read the first two sentences in the second paragraph?”
Mahdi mumbled his way through it, a sharp contrast to his clear enunciation of a few minutes ago. “‘It is the duty of every member of the Islamic Brotherhood to be an advocate for Sharia law. Your support for Mr. Mobassar is in direct conflict with that duty.’”
Mahdi looked up when he finished, and Alex let the silence hang there for a moment. “And those were your words, correct?”
“Yes. But that sentence does not imply that we will usher in Sharia law immediately. Like your church, Mr. Madison, our Brotherhood seeks to convert others to our faith. Only among those true converts would it be possible to implement some tenets of Sharia law.”
“Where does the e-mail say that?”
Mahdi took a sip of water. “It does not explicitly say that. As they say, you must read between the lines.”
Alex picked up another document from his table, and Mahdi eyed him suspiciously. This was one of Alex’s favorite tricks-get the witness in trouble with a document early in his testimony, and for the rest of the time, the witness would watch with trepidation as Alex picked up other documents. It kept the witness honest. He would never know whether Alex had something else in writing to impeach him with, should the witness waffle on the truth.
“Let’s talk about Sharia law and specifically the rights of women,” Alex said, looking at the new document. “Can a man be convicted of rape based on the victim’s testimony alone?”
Taj Deegan jumped to her feet. “Nobody’s claiming rape here, Judge.”
“But we are trying to determine who committed an honor killing-in other words, who places such a low value on the life of a woman that he would order her killed just to restore the honor of her family.”
Rosenthal thought about this for a moment. “I’ll allow it.”
Alex took a step or two toward the witness. “Can a man be convicted of rape based on the testimony of the victim alone?”
“How many witnesses does it take?”
“Do they have to be eyewitnesses?”
“Do they have to be men?”
“And how many witnesses, in addition to the alleged rapist, does it take to clear a man accused of rape?”
“So if the rapist and a friend testify that it was consensual sex, then the man goes free?”
“And the woman could be whipped for committing fornication-true?”
“Under Sharia law, fornication can be punished by whipping.”
“How many times have you seen a man whipped for fornication?”
Mahdi lowered his voice. “None.”
“Under Sharia law, a man can divorce his wife by simply saying the words, ‘I divorce you.’ Isn’t that true?”
“Like America, fault is not required for divorce.”
“Is fault required to be shown if the person who wants the divorce is a woman?”
“But a man can divorce his wife even by sending her a text message, if he so desires, so long as the text message is clear. Am I right about that?”
“A divorce can be granted by any means of communication.”
“And the children-under Sharia law, they’re considered the seed of the man, and he is entitled to custody if he so desires. Is that correct?”
“Judge,” Taj Deegan pleaded, “is this a quiz on Sharia law, or will we ever get around to relevant testimony for this case?”
“You have a point,” Judge Rosenthal conceded. “Mr. Madison, let’s move on.”
“Yes, sir.” Alex consulted a document and glanced at the jury. The empathy he had seen on their faces earlier was fading. The women especially seemed to be cooling toward the witness. Also disappearing was the nervousness that Alex had felt before he started the cross-examination.
“You divorced your first wife after only four years of marriage; is that correct?”
“Yes. I am sorry to say that it did not work out.”
“And the children stayed with you?”
“They did. They are grown now, but I raised them. They wanted to stay with me. My wife just wanted out of the marriage and out of the home.”
“Did you accuse your first wife of infidelity?”
Mahdi started to speak and caught himself. He glanced at Taj Deegan, apparently looking for a bailout, and then turned to the judge. “Must I discuss the conduct of my first wife in open court?”
“Answer the question,” Rosenthal said. There was no sympathy in his voice.
Mahdi sighed. “She was unfaithful. With several men. I tried to handle the divorce with dignity and compassion-never accusing her publicly.”
“Did you ever hit her or abuse her?”
Mahdi straightened with indignation. “Absolutely not.”
“How many witnesses did you have for her infidelity?”
“I didn’t need witnesses,” Mahdi said quietly but with conviction. “She admitted the affairs.”
“Did you split the assets with her?”
“No, Mr. Madison. My wife wanted out of the marriage. She didn’t want the responsibility. She didn’t want me. I granted her that wish by seeking a divorce, and I kept her unfaithfulness quiet.”
Alex shifted gears and spent some time grilling Mahdi about his access to the mosque’s safe. He established that Mahdi was at the mosque nearly every day and could walk into just about any office.
“Did you ever borrow Khalid’s cell phone on the pretense that you needed to make a call because your own phone wasn’t charged?”
Rosenthal had a short-but loud-coughing fit, and Alex glanced at his watch. “Would this be a good time for a break, Your Honor?”
The jurors seemed appreciative, and Rosenthal looked as if he could hardly wait to clear them out so he could rush away for another cigarette.
After the jurors and judge left, Alex sat next to Shannon. “You’ve got him on the run,” Shannon said.
But Fatih Mahdi didn’t look like a man on the run. He was staring at Alex. The look in his eyes promised that this was not over yet.**
After the break, Alex turned his attention to the theological disputes between Fatih Mahdi and Khalid Mobassar. Step-by-step, Alex walked the witness through the history of the dispute, highlighting Mahdi’s vocal opposition to the imam’s teachings.
“And then, about six months ago, you abruptly stopped criticizing Mr. Mobassar publicly. Isn’t that correct?”
“I don’t remember the exact day. But yes, there came a time when I ceased my public opposition to your client’s teaching.”
“That’s when you decided to stop him another way-that’s when you decided to set him up for the honor killing of your wife. Isn’t that true?”
“Absolutely false,” Mahdi said. “I didn’t even know about Ja’dah’s conversion to Christianity at that time. I thought she was still committed to the Muslim faith.”
Alex walked in front of Taj Deegan’s table and parked himself at the same spot next to the jury rail that she had occupied earlier.
“You are aware that in Virginia, if you seek a divorce, your wife is entitled to equitable distribution-half of the marital estate?”
“I was not aware of that. I did not seek a divorce from Ja’dah. Instead, I went to my friend, Khalid Mobassar, hoping that he could talk to my wife and restore both her faith and our marriage.”
“How much are you worth, Mr. Mahdi?”
The witness turned crimson. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Just answer the question,” Alex said.
Mahdi hesitated and looked at Taj Deegan. But Alex knew she wouldn’t object. This line of questioning was absolutely relevant. Mahdi collected himself. “My net worth, including retirement accounts, is approximately $460,000.”
“And you worked your entire life to save that amount; is that correct?”
“I’ve worked very hard. Yes.”
“So you concocted a plan to save half that sum, restore the honor of your family, and put an end to the reforms of Khalid Mobassar, all in one swing of the sword.”
Taj Deegan was on her feet. “That’s not a question; that’s a closing argument. This isn’t Perry Mason.”
“Sustained,” said Rosenthal. “You should know better, Counsel.”
“That’s a lie,” the witness said.
“Mr. Mahdi,” Judge Rosenthal barked, “I sustained the objection. You are not to answer the question.”
“Let me phrase it differently,” said Alex. His strategy was working perfectly. Every objection just drew more attention to the question. “Do you now possess, all by yourself, every penny of the $460,000 that you previously shared with your wife?”
“Has Khalid Mobassar been discredited as a result of the charges against him?”
“That is not for me to say. That is for this court and jury to decide.”
“And under Sharia law, has the honor of your family been restored as a result of the death of Ja’dah Mahdi?”
The witness leaned forward and glared at Alex. “I would do anything to get my wife back. Your question is an insult to the memory of a woman I loved very much.”
“Is that right?” Alex asked. He walked back to his counsel table, and Shannon handed him a large pile of documents. Alex had been waiting the entire cross-examination for Mahdi to reiterate his love for his wife.
“May I approach the witness, Your Honor?”
Rosenthal nodded. Alex walked to the witness box and handed the documents to Mahdi. “These are transcripts from cell phone calls you had with your wife in the six months prior to her death. Why don’t you point out to me how many times in those calls you told your wife that you loved her.”
Mahdi didn’t even look at the documents. “It was something I told her in person. It was something I showed her by my actions.”
“I guess we’ll let the jury decide,” Alex said.