The family of three Cherry Hill brothers protested Wednesday outside the federal courthouse in Camden after the men lost another attempt to overturn their convictions for participating in a plan to kill soldiers at Fort Dix.
The protest came a day after the family learned that U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler denied the brothers' application for post-conviction relief. The Dukas wanted their convictions overturned, alleging their attorneys improperly prevented them from testifying during their 2008 trial.
Dritan "Tony," Eljvir, and Shain Duka, all in their 30s, were indicted in 2007 after they purchased weapons in an undercover sting centered on a plan to gun down soldiers at Fort Dix. They were convicted of conspiracy in 2008 and are serving life sentences.
At a hearing in January, the three men appeared before Kugler, who presided over their trial, and argued that their three trial attorneys had not been prepared to put them on the stand and coerced them to waive their right to testify.
Prosecutors presented trial transcripts from Dec. 9, 2008, that detailed conversations with the attorneys and the judge discussing their right to testify and choosing not to do so. After the attorneys said none of the Dukas wanted to testify, the judge asked them in open court as well if that was the case.
Dritan Duka said, "Yes, he has advised me, and I chose not to testify." Eljvir Duka responded, "What he says is true and correct." Shain Duka said, "That's true, I won't testify."
At January's hearing earlier this year, they told Kugler a different story. Dritan Duka said, "I definitely wanted to testify." Eljvir Duka said, "I was certain I wanted to testify." Shain Duka said, "We all thought it was important to tell our story."
The trial attorneys all testified at the hearing as well. All had indicated that they told "the Dukas that the decision of whether they wanted to testify was up to them and that they never told them that they were unprepared to put them on the witness stand," according to Kugler's decision, released this week.
"Dritan Duka has a strong motive to lie that was not present when he spoke before this court" in 2008 before he was convicted, Kugler wrote in assessing the credibility of the allegations. The judge wrote that he found the Dukas were not credible because of their conflicting statements during the trial and after they were convicted, when their motives changed.
On Wednesday, about two dozen relatives, friends, and activists displayed signs and spoke about what they said were wrongful prosecutions of the Dukas and two others who became known as the "Fort Dix Five." Supporters say the group was targeted by the FBI because of their religious beliefs. The other two men who were part of the Fort Dix Five were convicted; one is serving a life sentence, the other 33 years.
The Duka brothers' father, Ferik Duka, said that since it had been nearly five months since the last court hearing before Kugler, he hoped for a favorable outcome for his sons.
"I thought maybe he [Kugler] knew what he had done, that he convicted innocent people," Duka said, adding that when he heard from the attorney late Tuesday afternoon, "I was shocked."
Duka and his wife, Zurata, said they will continue to fight for their sons' freedom. The Dukas have lost all direct appeals in the court system. Post-conviction relief typically is the last legal option to set aside a conviction.
"We're going to continue to fight," Ferik Duka said. "I have faith in God and faith in people."
The Dukas, roofers and Albanian immigrants, alleged in their defense that they bought the weapons because they could get them at a good price and resell them. They also alleged they had not participated in planning the conspiracy to gun down soldiers at the Fort Dix military base.
The men have garnered support from activists in other cities where similar prosecutions have taken place. Lynn Jackson, from Albany, N.Y., arrived in Camden on Wednesday to help coordinate the protest. She said prosecutors used the fear after Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to go after those with Islamic beliefs.
"The Duka brothers did not know about any conspiracy," said Jackson, who was active in supporting those convicted in Newburgh, N.Y., of a terrorism plot.
The Duka brothers had been recorded over hundreds of hours for the FBI investigation. Their attorneys said the Dukas put on a macho front, but never intended to participate in an attack.
The Duka family has said the government informants who secretly recorded the trio were not credible. One was an Egyptian-born undocumented immigrant on probation for bank fraud. The other had been paid about $150,000 by the FBI while making the recordings.
In an order signed Friday, Kugler wrote that because he found the brothers were not credible, "the Dukas' sole remaining claim will be denied."