Today I filed a motion in a terrorism case in the Eastern District of New York asking the judge to open the courtroom and unseal the filings in the case. As an independent reporter this was a costly, but I think necessary step to keeping the judicial process open.
Usually I’m drawn to write about a case because of what the court record has to say about it. In this case—USA vs. John Doe—it was what the court record didn’t say that interested me. The charges were compelling: on August 11th and individual was charged with providing material support or resources to terrorists, receipt of military-type training, and unlawful use of firearms. But, the accused had no identity.The judge agreed to seal the courtroom and the filings in the case on the 13th. At that point it became impossible to get answers to basic questions surrounding the charges. Was the accused an American citizen or foreign national? Was he arrested in the U.S. or outside of the country and brought into the district? Was an active plot disrupted or was this part of an ongoing investigation? Within 48 hours of the arrest, the defendant waived indictment and plead guilty.
This was swift justice. All out of view of the public. Obviously, there’s a bit I can infer from the proceedings. A consensus view among defense counsel I spoke with is that this individual is cooperating. Since this is a terrorism case, there are likely compelling national security and personal safety justifications to keeping this individual’s identity secret. If he is providing information in support of an active investigation then publicly releasing his identity in the court record could threaten that work.
But these are all assumptions—and assumptions and hypothetical scenarios don’t make for good journalism. In fact, there is nothing remarkable about the use of “John Doe” as an alias in federal court filings, particularly in narcotics cases. But typically this is a temporary measure, until the defendant’s name can be disclosed. In the Southern District you’ll only find two pending cases against John Doe defendants, whereas there are more than 40 such defendants in Eastern District on crimes ranging from murder, bank fraud, assault, narcotics trafficking, and harboring illegal aliens. Since my job relies on facts, I’ve asked the court to unseal the most essential facts of this case—including an answer to the question that’s been troubling me: who is John Doe?