CLEVELAND, Ohio — An undercover FBI agent will don a disguise and use a pseudonym in a partially-closed courtroom when testifying in a trial for a man charged with working to create a cell of Islamic State supporters to carry out violent acts in the United States.
The agent’s identity must be protected when he takes the stand against Erick Jamal Hendricks in a federal courtroom in Akron because he is still working cases undercover, federal prosecutors said. To show his face to the public would put his and his family’s safety at risk, as Hendricks and others have conducted countersurveillance to detect undercover law enforcement, the government argued.
U.S. District Judge John Adams agreed, imposing nearly all the safety measures requested by prosecutors for the agent’s testimony, which is expected take place sometime this month. Jury selection for Hendricks’ trial began Friday. The trial could last up to three weeks.
An order issued Wednesday says the agent will testify under a pseudonym, wear a “light disguise, such as changing … facial hair, hairstyle, or dress style” and is allowed to enter the courthouse through an entrance not available to the public.
Only the judge, jury, defendant, his attorneys, the government’s team and essential court staff will be allowed in the courtroom during the agent’s testimony, the judge ordered. Spectators can listen to an audio feed of the testimony in a separate room in the courthouse. They will not be able to see the agent.
Adams noted that he may allow Hendricks’ close family in the courtroom while the agent testifies.
Hendricks, 37, of North Carolina is charged with conspiring to provide support to ISIS. Federal prosecutors say his mission was to recruit and train ISIS sympathizers in the U.S. to carry out attacks. He vetted people to see if they were suitable to join his cell and told others to vet more possible recruits through social media, authorities say.
A large part of the government’s case centers on Hendrick’s alleged connection to one of two gunmen who opened fire at “The First Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” in Garland, Texas in May 2015. Simpson and the other man, Nadir Hamid Soofi, wounded a security guard before police shot and killed them.
The undercover agent is expected to testify that he spoke to Hendricks through social media and that Hendricks connected Simpson and the agent. Hendricks also directed the agent travel to Garland, which is northeast of Dallas, because of the contest. Once there, Hendricks asked the undercover agent about security measures at the event, according to court records.
In addition to being in close to the exhibit around the time of the attack, the undercover agent was in communication with Simpson before Simpson and Soofi opened fire, filings show. An FBI affidavit filed in support of Hendricks’ arrest in August 2016 noted that the agent, while talking to Simpson, told him to “tear up Texas” more than a week prior to the Garland art exhibit shooting.
The agent made the comment “in an effort to continue their dialogue,” the affidavit says.
The measures the government requested and the judge allowed to restrict the public’s ability to watch the undercover agent testify are unusual but not unprecedented. While the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant’s right to a public trial, courts have taken unique steps in cases that involve law enforcement doing undercover work, especially in terrorism cases.
Judges across the country have approved measures similar to the ones Adams will impose or have taken other steps such as using a screen to shield an agent or informant’s face from a courtroom’s viewing gallery.
Hendricks’ attorneys disputed some, but not all of the measures the judge ordered to limit access to the undercover agent’s testimony….
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