The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Trials of Rasmea Odeh, Part Five—Did PTSD Make Her Do It?

Defense counsel argued that PTSD caused Rasmea Odeh to provide false answers on her citizenship application, and they found a famous psychologist to back up the claim.


Thank again to Eugene Volokh for inviting me to blog this week about my book, The Trials of Rasmea Odeh. Part One is here; Part Two is here; Part Three is here; Part Four is here.

Rasmea Odeh's answers on her naturalization application were so obviously false that her first lawyer—William Swor of Detroit—proceeded straight to plea bargaining without filing pretrial motions. Swor was no pushover, having received awards from the Arab American Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Defense Attorneys of Michigan.

Swor negotiated an extremely favorable deal, with no prison time, but Odeh rejected it. After consulting with Deutsch and Fennerty, she opted to raise a political defense—condemning Israel for torture and conspiring with the U.S. government—under the guidance of the leftist lawyers, who entered appearances in the case.

But even a politicized defense had to deal with the falsehoods on the naturalization form.

Fortunately for Odeh, one of the world's foremost authorities on treating torture victims lived in Chicago. Dr. Mary Fabri, had been director of Torture Treatment Services and International Training at the Kovler Center, and had consulted on torture care in Kurdistan, Rwanda, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and Haiti. She met with Odeh for 18 hours over six sessions, confirming that she suffered from PTSD.

As a treating psychologist trained to believe victims, Fabri had unquestioningly accepted Odeh's exaggerations and fabrications, credulously repeating them in her lengthy report. Fabri wrote, for example, that Odeh's torture had continued for 45 days because "she had no information [about the bombing] to share" with her interrogators, when of course she had publicly admitted her role in the bombing before immigrating to the U.S. And in her most extensive previous account, Odeh had claimed to have been tortured for only seven days.

Worse, however, was Fabri's continuous improvement of her assessment. She initially opined only about "a strong possibility" that Odeh would have misinterpreted the naturalization form's questions, while admitting, "I don't know what went on in her mind."

As the case proceeded, however, Fabri enhanced her opinion far beyond her expertise, ultimately applying her novel PTSD filtering theory to conclude that "Ms. Odeh did not intentionally lie on the citizenship exam, but instead interpreted the questions" to apply only to her life in the U.S.

The prosecution successfully excluded Fabri's testimony from the trial, based on its own convoluted theory that expert psychological testimony was inadmissible in a "general intent" crime.

Without Fabri's opinion, Odeh was convicted by a jury in 2014, but the prosecution had unwittingly set the stage for a successful appeal.

With nothing in the trial record to rebut the filtering theory, the judges on the Sixth Circuit panel said they didn't even understand the "general intent" argument, and unanimously reversed the conviction due to the exclusion of Fabri's testimony.

The case was set for retrial before Judge Drain, with the prospect of Fabri's testimony about the extent of Odeh's torture and its alleged effect on her answers in the naturalization process.

At almost the last minute, however, Odeh decided to plead guilty, accepting virtually the same deal negotiated by Swor three years earlier—conviction of a felony, revocation of citizenship, and deportation. Her allies tried to spin the surrender, weakly claiming that they had successfully put Israel's human rights record in the official court record.

In fact, Odeh and her attorneys had seen the writing on the wall. Fabri's proposed testimony was shaky on the merits, and subject to impeachment for inconsistency. And the prosecution's superseding indictment was going to put Odeh's admitted PFLP membership at the center of the retrial. Cornered and exhausted, she had simply given up, despite her victory in the appellate court.

Odeh would continue to appear at anti-Israel rallies, claiming that she had been forced into a "racist" plea bargain, but that could not forestall her inevitable deportation in September 2017.