WICHITA, Kansas ― An overwhelmingly white jury will decide the fate of three white militiamen facing federal charges for allegedly plotting a terrorist attack that targeted a community of Somali Muslim refugees.
Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen were arrested and charged in connection with a FBI domestic terrorism sting that wrapped up a few weeks ahead of the 2016 presidential election. They’ll be on trial in a quiet federal courthouse in downtown Wichita over the next six weeks.
The federal government says they intended to slaughter Muslim refugees living in an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, whom they considered “cockroaches” and a threat to the United States. The trio allegedly planned their attack for the day after the election because they didn’t want to hurt President Donald Trump’s chances of victory.
There were only a handful of African-Americans in the jury pool called to the federal courthouse. Just one black individual, the daughter of refugees from Eritrea, made the final panel of 40 potential jurors. But she was ultimately struck from the jury ― almost certainly by the defense attorneys, who had questioned the woman about whether she could be fair to a group of defendants who thought refugees needed to be exterminated and referred to President Barack Obama as the “nigger in the White House.”
Gebilet, whom HuffPost agreed to identify by her first name only, said in an interview afterward that she considered it a blessing that she had been summoned in the first place.
“The immigrant community here is so small, to even have been selected is an honor,” she said.
She suggested that the defense attorneys probably decided just from her name and her appearance that they didn’t want her as a juror. And she wasn’t surprised by the ultimate makeup of the jury.
“Generally, minorities are not picked,” Gebilet said. “It’s a real shame that that happened,” she said, but she still has faith in the jury process in this case.
The lack of black representation on the jury is especially stark because it adds to the probable dearth of black voices in the courtroom. The judge has ruled that none of the potential victims of the plot will be allowed to testify during the trial, since they only knew about the planned attack because the government told them about it. The apartment complex the trio allegedly targeted is more than 200 miles away, so it’s unlikely many members of that community will be present in the courtroom either.
The final jury, including four alternates, is made up of eight men and eight women. It includes one woman who described herself as half-native American. That group was narrowed down from an initial 600 people who received jury questionnaires. The attorneys on both sides ultimately qualified just over 100 potential jurors after probing them extensively about their views on a wide range of issues over the course of two days.
African-American jurors faced questions about their ability to give three racists a fair trial, especially given the fact that the defendants had repeatedly used the n-word.
“It’s a part of life, it always has been,” one woman, a customer services manager, said of the slur. “It’s something that you have to move past.”
“I’m almost 60 years old, I’ve been hearing that all my life,” said another woman.
Yet another woman said she wouldn’t be able to get past the language and she was dismissed from the panel.
A number of potential jurors were excused for other reasons, including a former deputy sheriff dismissed because his ex-girlfriend used to date one of the defendants, Patrick Stein. Also, a man who said that the allegations made his “blood boil” and that the defendants were “guilty until proven innocent.” A woman who, upon hearing the term “weapon of mass destruction,” thought of her uncle who was killed in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. A woman who used to live in the apartment complex targeted and got to know the families there.
One man described himself on his jury questionnaire as a “Western chauvinist” and complained about refugees moving into neighborhoods. He said he’d seen a lot of the world and was convinced that America was the best and he didn’t want to live anywhere else.
“I am 100 percent for America all the time,” he told the attorneys. “I’m very unapologetic about it.” He later said he wasn’t offended by those who called another human being a cockroach or a whole group of people an infestation. It was just a way of describing a group of people who have “overrun” an area, he said.
He also objected to labeling Trump’s travel ban as a “Muslim ban.”
“It’s not a Muslim ban, that’s just what they put out there,” he said, but he insisted religion wasn’t really the focus of Trump’s effort. He didn’t make the final jury.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Mattivi, a Kansas-based prosecutor with a high-and-tight haircut and an affinity for American flag socks, is leading the prosecution of the case alongside two attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division based out of the nation’s capital. Mattivi made sure the potential jurors knew he wasn’t an out-of-towner. “My office is in Topeka, and I live in Topeka with my family,” he told one group.
Mattivi also told the jurors that it was his job to make sure the trial was fair. He asked whether there was anyone who believed the government had no role in protecting civil rights. He asked if anyone had been bullied before. He asked them about their views on immigration and whether they thought the government should take religion into account when deciding who was admitted to the U.S. He asked what American values meant to them.
Many of the potential jurors with the most interesting views didn’t make the cut. The final jury does include a woman who had great concerns about immigration policy, a strong Second Amendment supporter with a Muslim friend, a man with a son-in-law who just immigrated to the United States, another Second Amendment supporter who advocated for gun rights on Facebook but said he’s not a fanatic, and a man who wrote his congressman recently hoping to do something about AR-15s.
HuffPost is covering the trial from Wichita this week.
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering the Justice Department, federal law enforcement, criminal justice and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at email@example.com or on Signal at 202-527-9261.