ATLANTA -- The Muslim cleric and former Black Panther once known as H. Rap Brown considers his upcoming murder trial the culmination of a decades-long government conspiracy to silence him.
Prosecutors say their case against Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin is much more simple. To them, he's a cop killer and they say they have the evidence to prove it.
Jury selection was to begin today amid heavy security and scrutiny from followers of the Atlanta mosque Al-Amin leads and police officers seeking justice for the killing of one of their own. If convicted, Al-Amin could face the death penalty.
Fulton County Deputy Sheriff Aldranon English is expected to testify that Al-Amin fired at him and his partner, Deputy Ricky Kinchen, when they tried to serve him with a warrant on minor charges in Atlanta on March 16, 2000.
Kinchen died the next day. English was wounded but recovered.
Al-Amin -- who was captured four days later after a gun battle with authorities near Montgomery, Ala. -- says it's a case of mistaken identity.
"I am falsely accused of shooting and injuring a deputy sheriff and denying another of his life," the 58-year-old imam said in a letter to his followers Dec. 14.
He also said the murder charge is the latest episode in a government conspiracy that has dogged him since his days as a high-profile Black Panther.
"The FBI has a file on me containing 44,000 documents, but prior to this incident, their investigation has produced no fruits, no indictments, no arrests," he said in a jailhouse interview with The New York Times, published Sunday. "At some point, they had to make something happen to justify all the investigations and all the money they've spent."
Under close watch
According to police records, Atlanta authorities and the FBI kept a close watch on Al-Amin during much of the 1990s, investigating him for possible connections to domestic terrorism, gun running and more than a dozen homicides.
He wasn't charged in any of the investigations. At the time of the shooting, he was being sought for failing to appear in court on charges that he was driving a stolen car and flashed a police badge when stopped by officers in 1999. Kinchen and English were trying to serve that warrant when they were shot.
Defense attorneys are expected to focus on inconsistencies in English's statements, including his claim that both deputies shot their attacker. Al-Amin was unharmed when he was arrested, and body armor he was wearing showed no signs of dents.
In recent years, Al-Amin was known more for his religious beliefs and efforts to improve Atlanta's West End than his past.
He converted to Islam while serving a five-year prison sentence for his part in a robbery and a shootout with police in New York, and became leader of one of the nation's largest black Muslim groups, the National Ummah. The movement, which has formed 36 mosques around the nation, is credited with revitalizing poverty-stricken pockets such as West End.
Some of the nation's largest Muslim groups are supporting Al-Amin, and potential jurors will be asked their opinions of Muslims. The trial was postponed once because Judge Stephanie B. Manis said anti-Muslim sentiment after the Sept. 11 attacks would make it difficult to seat a jury.
About 1,500 potential jurors have been summoned. Court officials say it could take as long as a month to seat a panel.
On Monday, Manis ruled that Al-Amin violated a gag order by writing letters from jail proclaiming his innocence and doing the telephone interview with the Times.
Manis called it a deliberate attempt by Al-Amin to taint the jury pool and stripped of him of jail phone privileges. She also limited his approved visitors to his attorneys and an investigator.
One of his attorneys, Jack Martin, argued that Al-Amin hadn't discussed the facts of the case but had just declared his innocence, "what any American ought to be able to do when they're charged with a crime."
But Manis said Al-Amin had violated her order, which she handed down in May after his own attorneys asked for it.
"The defendant has the right to proclaim his innocence in the courtroom, not in the newspaper," Manis said.