A U.S. district court judge has denied an attempt to overturn the convictions of Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir Duka, three brothers who were sentenced to life in prison on dubious charges that they conspired to attack a military base in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
The Duka brothers had sought to reverse their convictions on grounds of attorney ineffectiveness at their original trial. This January, they told a court that their original lawyers coerced them into not testifying at trial, saying they were unprepared to put the brothers on the stand, despite the brothers’ desire to do so.
In his ruling Tuesday, Judge Robert Kugler said that those assertions were not credible, pointing, in the case of each brother, to statements they made under direct questioning by the court in the original trial as to whether they had been advised they had a right to testify and whether they understood their attorneys could not stop them from testifying. All answered in the affirmative, in two instances explicitly stating they chose not to testify, and in the third, confirming a statement their attorney had just made to that effect. The brothers have said they were told this portion of the trial was a mere “formality.”
Kugler, the same judge who sentenced the Dukas to life imprisonment in the case, also said in his ruling that the Dukas’ “sole remaining claim” for relief was being denied.
In a statement yesterday, Robert Boyle, the lawyer for Shain Duka, said the judge’s decision was “disappointing [but] not entirely unexpected.” Boyle added that he would be taking the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.
“The major struggle, however, must be in the public arena,” Boyle added. “In this case, the government used highly paid informants that manipulated the Dukas into making theoretical statements that the government then used to charge them with terrorism. No act was ever committed by them. No act was ever planned by them. Nor did they agree to commit any illegal acts.”
“The result is that hard-working young men with devoted families are serving sentences of life without parole,” he said. “This case was not about fighting terrorism. It was about feeding fear.”
The Fort Dix Five case has long been cited by legal advocates as an example of particularly egregious excess in counterterrorism policing. An investigation published by The Intercept last year determined that the Duka brothers were not involved in any alleged plot against Fort Dix, nor were they even aware of such a plan. An informant used by the government in the case stated his belief that the brothers were innocent, describing them as “good people” who had nothing to do with the alleged Fort Dix plot.
Questions were raised about Kugler’s own impartiality after he told one of the defendants during sentencing that the lack of “explicit evidence does not concern me and obviously didn’t concern the jury either,” adding that the individual in question could not be deterred from crime “because of his belief system.”
Despite glaring deficiencies in the case, the prosecution of the Fort Dix Five has been trumpeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a signal achievement of his career in public service. Christie prosecuted the Duka brothers while working as a U.S. attorney, and the case helped turn him from an obscure New Jersey official into a national political figure. Christie repeatedly cited the Fort Dix case during his unsuccessful presidential run as proof of his national security credentials. Since dropping out of the race, he has primarily earned notice for his bizarre public appearances alongside presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, appearances that have fed rumors of a future role for Christie in a Trump administration.
Legal advocates say they will not give up their fight to win a new trial for the Dukas, who they say were victims of entrapment by the government. “The Duka brothers were convicted of a conspiracy they did not know about; this is un-American,” says Lynne Jackson, a lawyer with the advocacy organization Project SALAM. “The supporters of the Fort Dix Five will continue to advocate for them and will continue to seek justice for the brothers. We will never give up until they are free.”