In an Akron, Ohio, courtroom this week, a Charlotte man charged with recruiting for ISIS retains the constitutional right to confront his accusers.
But one of the witnesses testifying against Erick Hendricks will be wearing a disguise.
In an unusual ruling last month, U.S. District Judge John Adams has cleared the way for an undercover FBI agent to hide his identity by using a pseudonym and altering his appearance when he’s in the courtroom.
At prosecutors’ request, Adams has also agreed to largely clear the federal courtroom when the agent takes the stand.
Under normal circumstances, the Sixth Amendment would guarantee Hendricks a public trial. Instead, only the judge, jury, Hendricks and his attorneys, government prosecutors and essential clerical staff will be allowed to hear the agent’s testimony in person. Adams did say he may allow Hendricks’ immediate family to hear the agent testify in person.
Spectators will need to listen in from an adjacent room. They will not be able to see the agent while he’s testifying, and will be allowed to return to the courtroom only after he leaves.
In a filing last month, federal prosecutors said the steps were necessary to ensure the safety of the agent and his family, and to protect the active investigations in which he is still involved. They also maintain that the measures will not compromise Hendricks’ right to a fair trial.
According to the judge’s order, the agent will wear a “light disguise” that could involve changing his facial hair, hairstyle or typical clothing, raising the possibility that he may be wearing a wig or a fake beard when he testifies.
In that way, prosecutors say, the agent’s identity can be hidden without affecting the jury’s ability to assess his credibility as a witness or drawing undue attention to the “unique nature” of the testimony, prosecutors say.
Hendricks’ attorneys did not object to the agent’s use of a disguise or pseudonym. But they did argue that the public should be allowed to witness the entirety of Hendricks’ trial. Emptying most of the courtroom when the FBI agent testifies “would send the clear message (to the jury) that Hendricks is dangerous,” a defense filing says.
Hendricks was arrested in Charlotte in August 2016 on charges of supporting the Islamic State, a terrorist organization better known as ISIS or ISIL.
A subsequent indictment alleges that Hendricks, a longtime Columbia resident who moved to Charlotte a month before his arrest, hoped to recruit and train an ISIS force in America to commit terrorist acts.
His trial is being held in Ohio because federal prosecutors say Hendricks recruited a Cleveland-area man who pleaded guilty in 2016 to federal charges after he bought an assault rifle as part of a plan to support ISIS.
Court documents also tie Hendricks and the undercover FBI agent to a May 3, 2015, terrorist attack in Garland, Texas.
Two shooters, Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi, opened fire outside the “Draw the Prophet Muhammad Contest” and wounded a security guard before they were shot and killed by police.
Hendricks has pleaded not guilty to the charges. In a letter he wrote from his Mecklenburg County jail cell that was given to the Observer by his family, Hendricks said he was a longtime, paid FBI informant who opposed radical Islam and was “baffled” by his arrest.
During his initial court appearance in Charlotte federal court, Hendricks openly wept.
Prosecutors say the undercover FBI agent communicated frequently with Hendricks on social media starting in the spring of 2015. Ten days before the cartoon contest attack in Texas, Hendricks connected the agent with Simpson, one of the shooters, an FBI affidavit says. The day before the attack, Hendricks told the agent to go to Garland himself, the affidavit says.
After the agent arrived at the cartoon contest, Hendricks contacted him to ask about security measures at the venue. The FBI affidavit also says Hendricks urged the agent to find and attack the organizer of the event.
Moments before the shooting started, Simpson sent out a message on social media, according to the affidavit.
“#texas attack,” it read. “May Allah accept us as mujahideen.”
Based on online postings included in the FBI affidavit, prosecutors say Hendricks initially believed the FBI agent was one of the shooters killed.