Accused "underwear bomber" takes legal help

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with trying to detonate an explosive device on an airplane, is seen at a school in Lome, Togo, in this undated photo provided by Mike Rimmer.
AP Photo/Mike Rimmer

DETROIT - An attorney defending a man accused in a failed plot to bring down a U.S.-bound jetliner faces a tough task pecking away at the government's evidence in a case where the suspect was captured in a snap.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with trying to turn an underwear bomb into a weapon of mass destruction, is acting as his own lawyer. But in practice, the young Nigerian is relying on Anthony Chambers to handle the minute-by-minute work in the courtroom.

Chambers will grill most of the government's witnesses and recently persuaded Abdulmutallab to let him give the opening statement Tuesday in federal court. The result is likely to be a more focused defense and not a wild justification for trying to bring down an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on behalf of al Qaeda on Christmas 2009.

Abdulmutallab has written a few court filings in his own hand, including a request to be judged by Islamic law. He has at times appeared agitated in court, declaring that Osama Bin Laden and a radical Muslim cleric recently killed by the U.S. are alive. He also has objected to trial testimony from experts who will talk about al Qaeda and martyrdom.

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Chambers will be "more traditional in holding the government's feet to the fire and making them prove the case," said Lloyd Meyer, a Chicago lawyer and former federal prosecutor.

Chambers told The Associated Press that he and Abdulmutallab will "challenge everything" offered by federal prosecutors, including the chemical mix that caused smoke and fire but didn't explode inside the cabin of Northwest Airlines Flight 253. He didn't elaborate and acknowledged Abdulmutallab's role outside the courtroom has made things tougher.

"He's driving the bus. He's making the ultimate decisions on everything," Chambers said. "His self-representation certainly makes it more difficult strategically. But we're doing the best we can with what we have to work with."

The evidence is stacked high. Abdulmutallab, 24, was badly burned in a plane full of witnesses. The government says he told FBI agents he was working for al Qaida and directed by Anwar al-Alwaki, a radical, American-born Muslim cleric recently killed by the U.S. in Yemen. There are photos of his scorched shorts as well as video of Abdulmutallab explaining his suicide mission before departing for the U.S.

While being screened last week in court, some members of the jury pool were puzzled over Abdulmutallab's wish to be his own lawyer.

"You've seen enough shows and read enough novels. It's like having a doctor being his own physician. It's not your best advantage," a tool-and-die worker told a judge while Abdulmutallab listened.

Chambers, 50, came to the case a year ago after Abdulmutallab fired a four-member team from the Detroit Federal Defender Office and said he would represent himself. It's common for a federal judge to appoint a lawyer as "standby counsel" to assist someone who chooses to go alone.

But U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds has allowed Chambers, an attorney for 26 years, to do more than stand by. He filed detailed challenges to the government's use of Abdulmutallab's incriminating statements made from a hospital bed and without Miranda warnings. He thoroughly cross-examined a pharmacologist who testified during a pretrial hearing about the effects of a painkiller given to Abdulmutallab for his burns before the FBI interview.

Chambers and his staff also have done research that Abdulmutallab could not have accomplished behind bars awaiting trial.

"The goal of the court is to get the best representation so no one down the road can claim (Abdulmutallab) was railroaded or forced to assume a responsibility he could not handle," explained David Steingold, a longtime Detroit defense attorney.

At 6 feet 4 inches tall and with a smooth, deep voice, Chambers has a "commanding presence," Steingold said. "But what makes him an excellent lawyer is his attention to detail and his demeanor in court. You rarely see him rattled. If he does get upset it is righteous and the jury recognizes that. ... If there's a hole in the government's case, Tony will find that hole and rip into it."

Earlier this year, Chambers was in the Virgin Islands for a high-profile hospital corruption trial, which ended without a unanimous verdict. Among his Detroit federal cases, he defended a man in 2004 who was charged with killing a former police officer over drugs. Thelmon Stuckey III insisted on testifying and was convicted. A judge called it "self-destruction."

"No one could hold Tony responsible for that result," Steingold said.