WASHINGTON (Dec. 14)
A jury award of $156 million to an Israeli-American family whose son was killed in the West Bank strikes a precedent that could cripple U.S. fund raising for terrorism, lawyers for the plaintiffs said. A key element leading to the award last week against three charities and an individual for their complicity in the 1996 murder in Israel of 17-year-old David Boim was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Alyza Lewin said.
Judicial and government attitudes to the suit, filed more than a year earlier, changed dramatically after those attacks.
“We sued all these groups in a pre-9/11 world,” she said. After the attacks, the government filed an amicus brief in the Boims’ suit and other victims’ families cited it in filing similar cases.
The two rulings could have far-reaching implications, including for hundreds of Sept. 11 plaintiffs who have filed a trillion-dollar lawsuit against Saudi charities and others with American assets and for plaintiffs who have sued the Arab Bank for alleged links to terrorist funds.
The lawsuit in the Sept. 11 attacks “is based on our legal theory, and our case has been cited in numerous terrorist indictments,” Lewin said.
A jury ruled Dec. 8 in a Chicago federal courthouse against the Islamic Association for Palestine, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, the Quranic Literacy Institute and Muhammad Salah.
On trial in the preceding days was the Quranic Literacy Institute; U.S. Magistrate Arlander Keys had found the other three parties liable in a summary judgment in November.
“I think the precedent is enormous,” said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
“I think if nothing else, any other organizations that are doing this thing hopefully will stop altogether. If not, they will be a lot more careful,” said Kotzin, who, along with local colleagues, had been monitoring the proceedings closely.
“We are certain that many of the donors to these organizations had no intent that their dollars would be used this way. But now we have had a ruling by a federal judge that says unequivocally that these are Hamas supporters,” Kotzin said.
“We’re fighting a war against terrorism, and one of the ways to fight it is to dry up a source of funds, to be ready to identify the supporters, and that has happened.”
The case marked the first time the 1990 Federal Anti-Terrorism Act had been used to go after U.S.-based charities that fund terrorism.
“Our main purpose was to slow these groups and shut them down,” Lewin told JTA.
But she also saw long-term implications.
“People should be more careful — and are as a result of this lawsuit being more careful — about where they give their money.”
As the verdict was announced last week, Joyce Boim nodded her head as if to signal her approval.
Her son David, who was killed in a drive-by shooting as he stood at a bus stop, had hoped to become a doctor, and the trial included testimony about the potential value of David’s life if he had lived to achieve his dream.
“Maybe it’s a drop in the bucket with the entire Hamas organization, but at least we have stopped some money used to buy bombs and bullets that blow up children,” his mother said.
When the Boims filed suit in 2000, legal experts thought their case — the first that sought to expand the anti-terror legislation beyond the perpetrators — was a long shot. The defendants were confident it would be thrown out.
An appeals court hearing on Sept. 25, 2001 — two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks — was the first sign that the new reality in America meant the Boim’s case would get a different hearing.
“The court of appeals realized there was ‘added significance,’ ” Lewin said.
That was reinforced over the subsequent months through two government decisions: President Bush froze Holy Land’s assets; and the Justice Department filed an amicus brief in the case.
In November, Keys issued summary judgments against three of the four defendants.
“The court is persuaded that no genuine issues of fact exist and that no reasonable jury could, on the record before the court, find in favor” of the Islamic Association for Palestine, Keys said in one of the rulings of his 108-page judgment.
He said that only the case against Quranic Literacy Institute raised enough doubts to merit a trial by jury that also would assess damages.
He ordered a December trial and denied the charity its request for a continuance. The group is considering an appeal.
The total jury award was $52 million, which the judge automatically trebled under federal statutes. An economist had testified that if David Boim had become a physician, he could have earned anywhere from $4 million to $20 million in his lifetime. The Boims, who have lived in Israel since 1985, also sought an additional $6 million for mental anguish.
Three of the four parties have had their assets frozen by the federal government, while a fourth group — the Islamic Association for Palestine — is believed to have minimal assets.
Lewin said she was confident some assets could be recovered for the plaintiffs, especially since the liable organizations were American.
The U.S. government has stopped payment in past cases when courts found foreign nations liable in ordering terrorist attacks and ordered U.S. assets seized. But that is not the case here.
And that was not the point, Lewin said. Such charities “should be exposed for what they are and shut down,” she said.
During the trial, both Stanley and Joyce Boim delivered emotional testimony describing their pain after their son was murdered. On Dec. 8, before the verdict was delivered, Stanley Boim read psalms in the courtroom.
On the witness stand Tuesday, Joyce Boim tried to give the jury a sense of her son, describing him as the family peacemaker — a sweet, happy, funny boy who volunteered on an ambulance. She remembered how he would bound up the stairs after school, slamming the door as he came into the apartment, and lift the lids of pots simmering on the stove to see what she was making for dinner.
“He was the one who cemented everyone together,” she said.
Joyce Boim described how her own life changed unalterably the moment David died.
Soon after David was wheeled into the emergency room, a doctor came out to tell her that he had died, Joyce Boim said, weeping.
“I knew the second David died that I’d never be the same,” she said.
To this day, she said, she feels terrible numbness, shock and emptiness.
Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former FBI analyst, testified at the trial, outlining a money trail that led from a millionaire Saudi businessman to Hamas via the Quranic Literacy Institute, which gave cover and legitimacy to Salah, an employee and Hamas operative.
In 1992, Salah was sent to Israel to rebuild the leadership of Hamas, which had been gutted by the deportation of 400 Hamas members to Lebanon. Salah later was convicted in Israel for supplying money to the terrorist group.
During closing arguments last week, Stephen Landes, another of the attorneys representing the Boim family, called the three Islamic charitable groups “the oxygen that keeps the terror support system going.”
It takes money to buy the gun that killed David Boim, to train the terrorists that killed him, to indoctrinate others into lives of terrorism and to provide for the terrorists’ families when the terrorists are jailed or commit suicide, Landes said.
“They beat the drums for terrorism,” Landes said of the defendants. “They were the publicists.”
Still, as Joyce Boim noted of the jury award, “It could be billions of dollars, but it will not bring David back.”
(Chicago-based freelancers Daniel I. Dorfman and Lisa Pevtzow contributed to this story.)