Judge takes nuanced approach in US terrorism cases

Published 10:12 am Friday, July 31, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS — U.S. District Judge Michael Davis had seen this in his courtroom before — a young Somali-American who hadn’t previously been a troublemaker was now accused of conspiring to leave the U.S. and join the Islamic State group.

The 6-foot-5 Davis, who can make defendants fidget with his long, drawn-out silences, stressed the gravity of the charges and tried to gauge whether this particular young man was truly dedicated to jihad or simply misguided and a possible candidate for rehabilitation.

Federal judges in Chicago, New York and other U.S. cities typically take a hardline approach to terrorism suspects, locking them up after hearing from prosecutors that these men and women have embraced violent ideologies and are a threat to national security. But Davis — who’s handled all of the recent terrorism cases in Minnesota, where a large Somali community has been a target for recruits for the Islamic State group and al-Shabab — takes a nuanced approach. He’s considering pretrial release for some, asking attorneys and the community to create plans that will keep the public safe and steer the young men in a positive direction. As dozens of similar cases proceed nationwide, Davis’ actions could become a model for other courts, or could prove disastrous if he takes a risk on the wrong person.

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“I think he’s been able to see that terrorism cases aren’t black and white and there’s a lot of grey in there,” said Anders Folk, a former federal prosecutor in Minnesota who said Davis is among the most experienced judges in the country on the topic.

Davis doesn’t talk about active cases but said during a recent hearing: “This is way too important for us just to treat it as a regular criminal case.”

The first African-American federal judge in Minnesota has a broad, friendly smile that he uses to put jurors, and sometimes defendants, at ease, but he also employs a stare that flusters even the most experienced attorneys. He’s soft-spoken, but can command attention with a big, booming voice. The 68-year-old has no tolerance for disruptions in the courtroom, but is well known for ensuring each person receives equal justice.

Cases like the ones currently in front of Davis — eight young men charged with conspiring to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group — are challenging for any judge, Folk said. They’re complex and require managing a community that’s emotionally involved and sometimes feels unfairly targeted.