Alleged Chelsea bomber Ahmad Khan Rahimi’s defense lawyer did not vigorously contest his responsibility for the bomb that detonated a year ago on West 23rd Street in Manhattan in closing arguments Friday at his trial in federal court in Manhattan.
But defense lawyer Sabrina Shroff said the government hadn’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Rahimi had intended to detonate a second bomb left on West 27th Street that didn’t explode, an argument that would spare her client a mandatory life sentence if jurors agree.
“Your common sense tells you this is a man who knows how to detonate a bomb,” Shroff told the jury. “If he wanted to detonate a bomb on 27th Street he would have.”
The defense hadn’t hinted at the argument during opening statements, and appeared to catch the three prosecutors by surprise, as they whispered and shuffled through papers while she spoke.
Rahimi, 29, an Afghan-American from Elizabeth, New Jersey, is charged with planting the pressure-cooker bomb on West 23rd Sept. 17, 2016, that injured 30 people when it exploded, and leaving a similar bomb on West 27th that did not go off and was defused by police. He is also charged in New Jersey with leaving bombs there.
The West 27th bomb was left inside a suitcase. Surveillance videos played by the government showed that two men found it, removed the pressure cooker without apparently knowing it was a bomb, and left it on the sidewalk while taking the suitcase.
A resident noticed it after the West 23rd bomb went off at 8:30 p.m. and called police. Prosecutors contend that a timer on the cellphone attached to detonate the West 27th bomb was set for 9 p.m., but it didn’t set it off because the two men must have dislodged the wires. Police defused it after 9 p.m.
Shroff, however, argued there was no evidence wires were dislodged — an NYPD bomb expert testified that the wire running from the phone to the sealed pressure cooker was intact — and said the claim about the timer set for 9 p.m. was based on an unreliable FBI software program.
She also said prosecutors made a point throughout the trial of portraying Rahimi as a skilled bomb maker who knew how to one that would work, and said that there was no evidence Rahimi tried to call the phone to make it detonate when it didn’t go off at 9 p.m.
The 8:30 p.m. explosion on West 23rd Street, Shroff hinted to jurors, may have either accomplished Rahimi’s goals or given him second thoughts about the reality of what he was doing.
“After he heard that sound on 23rd Street, no one can dispute that there were no more explosions,” she argued.
To convict Rahimi of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and bomb a place of public use on West 27th, jurors must conclude he intended the bomb to go off. Those charges are a prerequisite to conviction on one of the two counts in the eight-count indictment of using a destructive device in furtherance of a crime of violence.
If he is convicted on both bomb counts, a life sentence is mandatory. If he is convicted only of the one related to 23rd Street, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman could still sentence Rahimi to as much as life, but it would not be mandatory.
In his rebuttal argument Friday morning, prosecutor Andrew DeFilippis ridiculed Shroff’s argument, calling it a “cover story” that was “straight out of the al-Qaida playbook,” and said there was no evidence that Rahimi didn’t want the bomb he made and left on West 27th to go off.
“This was not cold feet,” he said. “This was a cold and calculated attack . . . If the defendant didn’t want to kill people, he could have done any number of things. He could have taken that bomb with him. He could have called 911.”
During the course of the 2-1⁄2 week trial, prosecutors showed jurors bomb-making instructions from a jihadist magazine on Rahimi’s laptop, evidence that he purchased materials, DNA and fingerprints linking him to the bombs and a notebook expressing jihadist animosity toward the United States.
Jurors are expected to begin deliberations in the case on Friday afternoon.