Defending the Down and Out

Why Murad Mohammad takes the cases no one else will touch

Published in 2017 Minnesota Super Lawyers — August 2017

Photo by: Richard Fleischman

Murad Mohammad doesn’t consider himself an underdog. To do so would imply self-pity. Instead, he thinks of himself as a zealous advocate. And maybe a bit of a pain in the neck.

“I piss off prosecutors and judges,” says Mohammad, 36. “I consider that part of my job.”

His background and reputation for bluntness and tenacity make Mohammad, one of the state’s few Muslim criminal defense lawyers, an attractive choice for defendants, including those in the Somali and Arab communities.

“People gravitate toward you because of what they hear,” he says. “To see someone in a tough position—whether it’s because of something they did, or because of their race or some other external reason—resonates with me.”

Only a handful of states have more Muslim residents than Minnesota, where the Muslim population ranges between 20,000 and 35,000, depending on the survey. It’s a community that’s growing in both influence and scrutiny.

That was no more apparent than in 2016, when the state elected the nation’s first Somalia-born lawmaker, state Rep. Ilhan Omar, and when Somali citizens were at the center of one of the most explosive criminal trials the state has seen in decades.

Last November, Minnesota U.S. District Judge Michael Davis gave a 30-year prison sentence to 22-year-old Mohamed Farah for attempting to join terror group ISIS in Syria on multiple occasions. Eight other defendants also received sentences ranging from time served and 20 years’ supervised release to up to 35 years. The trial was marked by the highly charged emotions of both the family members of the accused and the prosecutors who wanted to see them locked up amidst the charged atmosphere of the lead up to the 2016 presidential election.

Mohammad defended Farah knowing full well that the case was an uphill battle. A mutual acquaintance made the introductions.

“The Twin Cities is a pretty small big city, especially when it comes to some communities,” Mohammad says. “With there not being very many Muslim lawyers in town, you end up being on the short list of people that community calls when they do get in trouble.”

 

Being in trouble is just about the only qualification necessary to be a client of Murad Defense, Mohammad’s one-man firm. His tenacity in the courtroom is matched by a friendly, self-effacing demeanor outside of it, and his background wouldn’t necessarily predict his future as a pain-in-the-neck defender.

Mohammad’s family immigrated to the United States from Iraq in the early 1980s, when he was a toddler. They settled in Columbia, Missouri, where his parents quickly went to work earning their master’s degrees at the University of Missouri.

Mohammad describes Columbia as a city that attracted residents from all backgrounds and nationalities. “It’s second nature for me to be in a diverse environment,” he says. “Growing up, I had a lot of great friends, some of whom were from my culture and some of whom weren’t. I never felt out of place, because everybody in their own way was out of place.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri, Mohammad moved to the Twin Cities to attend William Mitchell College of Law. While in school, a contact in the Office of Multicultural Affairs suggested that Mohammad try shadowing some working lawyers. After spending time with then-Ramsey County public defender Daniel Lew, Mohammad knew he had found his niche.

“I fell in love with the idea of being in the courtroom every day and dealing with clients who had issues that needed addressing immediately,” he says.

After obtaining his law degree in 2006, Mohammad clerked for Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin.

“I enjoyed having Murad as a law clerk,” says Gearin, who’s now retired. “He helped many of us in the court system understand and reach out to those of the Muslim faith and he helped them to understand and work with the court system.”

A short stint as a public defender led to a private defense practice, and Mohammad didn’t waste any time finding a spellbinding case. In 2011, he was retained to defend a St. Paul man, Michael Sherman, who beat a woman to death with a baseball bat after a sex-for-money deal went sour. Mohammad’s defense that Sherman was protecting his home led to an acquittal on the greater of the two charges he faced. 

“Most of my clients have been through much tougher things than I have,” Mohammad says of Sherman, who is deaf. “But I know what it’s like to be counted out, so I welcome the challenge of defending them and their constitutional rights.”

With the help of his longtime paralegal Jan Rangel, Mohammad will take on virtually any case he has time for—assault, robbery, murder, disorderly conduct, drug possession, DWI. He’s earned not-guilty verdicts or dismissals for clients on all those counts, among others.

“I don’t regret taking any case,” he says. 

That includes Farah’s. Even though Farah admitted to trying to leave the country to join ISIS and lying to a grand jury about his intentions to do so, Mohammad describes Farah and his friends as kids who got caught up in a situation whose gravity they didn’t understand.

“I know it sounds silly, but there’s nothing violent about these kids,” he says. “They weren’t what you would imagine bad young men to be like. If anything, they were religious, if somewhat misguided in that area. And they were goofy and silly and lazy. There was nothing about them that was scary.”

Jurors didn’t agree, nor did Judge Davis. In sentencing Farah and his fellow defendants, Davis told Mohammad’s client, “You’re not fooling me. You and your cell lied, lied and lied, and deceived, deceived and deceived, to go to the Islamic State.”

“I’ve never seen anything like the atmosphere in that place,” says Mohammad. “Judge Davis is one of the most storied, stoic judges out there. He owns that courtroom, and that’s not a bad thing. The media attention was staggering, and you had multiple family members there on a daily basis for almost a month, along with a lot of interested observers.”

Although he’s unhappy with the verdict, Mohammad recognizes the tough task Davis faced in presiding over the nation’s largest ISIS recruitment trial. He also maintains that the public narrative about the case missed the point.

“People thought these kids were terrorists intent on harming the U.S., but this case wasn’t about that,” he says. “It was about misguided youth who made the fateful decision to travel overseas to join ISIS—not necessarily to hurt the U.S., but to fulfill some perceived religious obligation on their own end.”

While the Farah case was the one that got Mohammad’s name in the paper, he doesn’t allow it to define him. It’s simply one more stop on the win-some/lose-some trajectory that most criminal defense lawyers follow.

Even so, is Minnesota a fair place to represent minority criminal clients? It depends, says Mohammad.

“Like anywhere, it can either be a huge issue, a small issue or a non-issue,” he says. “If you’re representing someone charged with a crime, the implicit bias is that they must be guilty. Add to that the charged issues of race and religion, and yeah—it’s at the front and center of your concerns.”

He has no trouble recalling cases where jurors weren’t at all bashful about making their biases known. A drug case he was defending in St. Paul had to be changed to a “Schwartz hearing” addressing jury misconduct after a juror openly reasoned that the defendant must be guilty because he was Hispanic.

A recent criminal sexual misconduct trial in Duluth in which Mohammad’s defendant was an Arab college student provided an even more pointed example. The jury was set to be deadlocked on one of the counts, but because the weekend was coming up and one juror didn’t want the trial to continue—and because the defendant was “just an Arab”—he said he was going to change his vote to guilty to break the deadlock and get the trial over with. (His fellow jurors brought the comments to the judge’s attention.)

“Those biases are palpable in every courtroom, and I would never ignore them,” says Mohammad. “I would be doing my client a huge disservice if he or she didn’t know I was at least aware of the potential for bias.

“Every lawyer has their own way of dealing with those things,” he adds. “For me, if the case doesn’t bring up any of these hot-button issues, I try to address them in a more subtle way so that the jury doesn’t think that I think they have those biases.”

Recently divorced, Mohammad takes care of his 3-year-old daughter a few days a week while devoting the remainder of his days to his work. Spare hours might find him taking his Indian Roadmaster motorcycle on a road trip with a club of fellow enthusiasts in the legal community, or putting his feet up on a boat somewhere on sunny days.

After a moment off, it’s back to the endless tug-of-war of defending the accused.

“I feel like I have an obligation to the Twin Cities community,” Mohammad says, “and that includes everyone—not just Muslim or Arab clients.”

 


 

On the Road Again

Mohammad belongs to a group of about 10 local legal figures who ride around Minnesota and have traveled as far as Nashville, New Orleans and, of course, Sturgis.

“While riding, you are in your own world, enjoying the road and scenery in ways that you can only do by bike,” Mohammad says. “Of course, when we reach our destination for the evening, we unwind together over dinner, and try to enjoy the weather and city we are in together. I’ve learned so much from my brothers that I ride with—everything from motorcycle repair and maintenance to the history of the places we travel to. 

“We’ve become friends and family to each other. No matter what someone is going through, we’ve come to trust and love each other.”

Photo by: Richard Fleischman

Photo by: Richard Fleischman

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