MOHAMED MOHAMUD was convicted almost a year ago—January 31, 2013—on charges he worked with undercover FBI operatives on a plan to blow up Pioneer Courthouse Square in 2010.
But Mohamud, just 19 when the feds said he tried detonating a bomb during a packed Christmas tree lighting ceremony, still sits waiting for his sentence. The case has always been dogged by questions of entrapment. And now, revelations about the National Security Agency and warrantless wiretapping have complicated that legal dance even further.
In light of this month's dubious anniversary, a KBOO reporter who covered every single second of Mohamud's trial is preparing a major production meant to look into those questions. Called Mo Is Shy, it's an old-fashioned radio drama built from reporter Joe Meyer's meticulous notes. Actors recreate choice moments from the trial, playing the judge, the prosecutors, the FBI agents who roped in Mohamud—and Mohamud himself.
And at the end, you get a picture of a kid Meyer says was all too "normal," and a sense, courtesy of four clues Meyer wants you to listen for, that things aren't as they seem. Mo Is Shy is set to air on KBOO next Wednesday, January 29, at 6 pm.
Meyer sat down for a Q&A (condensed and edited) about his message and his methods.
MERCURY: How did you land the trial assignment?
JOE MEYER: It was a random assignment. I didn't know many of the details. But after the first day, I was hooked. [The Oregonian's] Bryan [Denson] and I were the only ones who went every day. I didn't miss a minute.
Were you thinking this far ahead during the trial?
I was reporting live from the courtroom, and at 5:15 pm every day, they'd call me from the studio. That was enough to think about.
So how did you get to a docudrama, when it came time to put all that daily coverage in perspective?
It started with implausibility—who'd listen to me for two hours? And Alien Boy [the documentary about the life and death of James Chasse Jr.] came out. I'm impressed with the way art can meld with the news.
Talk about the process.
It's a reduction. And the reduction shows my prejudice. We don't have the transcripts yet, and no recording devices were involved. It was an editing job from my notes. We took a ruler and made a giant calendar—and the step, for every day, was to write four sentences in every square. That was it.
What points about the trial were you looking to make?
The FBI really has this idea of silos of information—and how can we come to a consensual reality based on that. When the tape recorder [allegedly recording the feds' first sitdown with Mohamud] failed, the guy on the stand says, "I was testing it the night before, I must've left it on." But the defense comes on and says the initial report said it was a memory problem. It didn't become relevant. But all these pieces add up.
Or the [FBI's pretend] "bomb maker." He said the defendant ordered that bomb, wanted to kill 10,000 people. But the defense says, "We have evidence the FBI wrote that note to [the 'bomb maker']." And [the "bomb-maker"] says, "Well, at the time, I thought he wrote it. He's a terrorist."
The FBI and prosecution have the script already written. They have a triad of evidentiary value [for trying suspects]: longstanding disposition, picking the target, and commitment to the cause. [Mohamud] had written for a jihad publication, and that was one strike. He chose Pioneer Courthouse Square as the target, and then he was hard to dissuade. They have to say the words "you can get out" repeatedly during every meeting [so a conviction sticks].
The FBI agents are personally motivated to get convictions. The judge didn't allow us to hear outtakes when the FBI forgot to turn off their devices. But they portray a different reality. Defense attorneys could only ask factual questions about the outtakes if they were relevant.
"Were you excited he took the bait?" "Yes." "Did you express this excitement in sexual terms?" "Yes." "Did you say everyone's got a bunch of woodies on?" "Yes." That will be in the transcript.
What should people know about Mohamud?
He's so regular. The guy who plays him doesn't sound exactly like him. But he plays a kid exactly like him. Honestly, I wept four times when going back over this, because [the actors] struck a chord and brought me back.