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To believe or not to believe

Al-Amin case will hinge on deputy's testimony

On day one of Jamil Al-Amin's trial, Fulton County prosecutors opened with the most tantalizing testimony they could possibly muster: a tearful deputy adamantly repeating how the defendant — a Muslim cleric and former black militant — shot him and assassinated his partner.

Not exactly the calculated suspense you might have expected from the trial of the year. How much more convincing can the coming evidence be? And how can the defense attorneys — even if they do have experience in Johnnie Cochran-style wizardry — possibly pull from thin air evidence akin to a shrunken glove?

But it's only the first week. A lot can happen in the ensuing showdown between a district attorney's office spooked by past failure and a defense team riding the crest of collective victories.

Jack Martin, who represented Olympic bombing suspect Richard Jewell; Bruce Harvey, of Gold Club and Ray Lewis fame; and fellow superstar attorneys Tony Axam of Atlanta and Michael Warren of New York have already started chiseling away at the seemingly-mile-high foundation prosecutors laid in the first few minutes.

While the defense's mission to undermine Deputy Aldranon English's testimony may now seem Herculean, three weeks later the sentiment may be: "Man, the prosecution really blew its wad."

That's pretty much what happened in the 2000 murder trial of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and co-defendants Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting. Fulton prosecutors' confidence crumbled after two key witnesses failed to deliver promised testimonies. The inconsistencies cracked the case and ultimately allowed the three men charged with murder to walk.

Without the blunders, "it's entirely likely they would have convicted both of them," says David Wolfe, an attorney who, along with Harvey, represented defendant Oakley.

"We like to think that the victories are a result of good lawyering," Wolfe says. "On the other hand, we caught some pretty good breaks in the Oakley case."

Are there any breaks to be found in the Al-Amin case? On the surface, it's hard to refute the indisputable way in which English said, during cross-examination last week: "The truth of the matter was, the defendant was standing outside the Mercedes and shot me with an assault rifle, sir. That I am sure of."

Couple English's confident and combative tone with the moments when his voice started wavering, and he buried his face in a tissue, and he couldn't talk for all the crying, and the emotive effect on the jury was like that of well-crafted Hollywood.

"The question then becomes, how well can you minimize eyewitness testimony?" Wolfe says.

Wolfe speculates that Al-Amin's defense strategy will be to minimize English's testimony by sowing doubt about his state of mind at the time of the shooting — and by calling an expert to the stand to describe how eyewitness testimony has sent innocent men to prison.

The defense already has illuminated some discrepancies in the deputy's testimony.

English swore on the eye color of the man who shot him and killed his partner, Ricky Kinchen. "My mama always told me to look a man in the eyes," he said. "I remember those gray eyes." Al-Amin's eyes are clearly brown.

And in the fourth statement English gave police — two months after the March 2000 shooting — he includes several previously unmentioned details, including a pair of yellow-tinted glasses his attacker wore. English testified that the yellow tint might have attributed to him mistaking Al-Amin's eyes for gray.

Martin said during cross-examination that the eye color confusion has another origin.

The warrant English was trying to serve Al-Amin at the time of the shooting wrongly lists his hair color as brown and his eye color as gray. (It should have described him as having gray hair and brown eyes, according to Martin.) Martin is trying to establish that English had preconceived notions about the man who attacked him — and that in the seconds after the first shot was fired, English convinced himself that the shooter had to be Al-Amin.

English, however, stood firm on his recollection. When Martin prodded him about any uncertainty he might have, he answered: "No sir, that is not what I believe. That is what happened."??