If it’s true that everyone gets 15 minutes of fame, Boise criminal defense attorney David Nevin has had more than his fair share, including his role as counsel for Kevin Harris in the widely publicized 1993 Ruby Ridge government standoff that ended in deadly gunfire. Following the longest federal trial in Idaho history, a jury found Harris and white separatist Randy Weaver not guilty of six of eight counts in the incident that led to the death of a U.S. marshal and Weaver’s wife and son.
Today, Nevin is best known for his role in the 2003 case of Sami Al-Hussayen, the former University of Idaho student acquitted of running a Web site used to recruit terrorists and disseminate fiery anti-U.S. rhetoric. Just 18 months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks crippled the nation’s confidence, emotions were still running high and distrust of people who were “different” from the majority was evident everywhere. Then Nevin fielded a call from the Saudi embassy: Could he defend a Saudi citizen accused of terrorist activities?
Nevin met with Al-Hussayen later that day, Feb. 26, 2003, and began the difficult process of crafting a defense for someone whose culture was so different from his own. “There are some obvious and some not so obvious factors that play into a case like this,” he says. Language was the most evident hurdle — even though Al-Hussayen spoke excellent English, the concepts being explained to him could be difficult for even native speakers to fully understand. “Even a partial language barrier complicates the task of explaining complex legal ideas,” Nevin says.
Adding to that were cultural differences. Concepts such as the right to remain silent are foreign in some countries and can be difficult to comprehend. “It was probably the first time he’d ever really thought about those things in relation to himself,” Nevin says.
In order to help the jury look past his client’s outer differences, which in addition to his exotic accent included a full beard and a wife who covered every part of herself except her hands and mouth, Nevin had to first learn to do the same himself. “How do you allow a jury to see a person who has hopes, fears, wishes and children that he loves, and is not involved in terrorism?” he asks. “How could I do it?”
First and foremost, he did everything possible to better understand Al-Hussayen himself. Over the course of several months, he talked to Al-Hussayen, his wife and other family members, read about Islam and visited with expert witnesses familiar with Islam and the Middle East. He then asked the jury to do the same. “My experience with juries is that they are very willing to do that,” he says.
Following a “not guilty” verdict for Al Hussayen, Nevin has been busy traveling around the country talking to attorneys and others about the case. Although the eyes of the nation were on him this time, he says lower profile cases involving foreigners, immigrants or new citizens are common. He has defended clients from Southeast Asia, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Canada and more. In each case, cultural differences had the potential to become a stumbling block. Nevin says it’s important that attorneys be allowed to carefully question potential jurors in order to uncover hidden prejudices and cultural misunderstandings.
“I think it’s a huge problem,” he says. “Maybe in the end the best any of us can do is look inside and change ourselves, and let that serve as an example to others.”
Nevin didn’t start out to be a lawyer. Instead, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature, and then spent some time teaching English at a language school in Germany and traveling around the continent. “My dad is a writer,” he says, “and that’s something that always felt right. I’m very committed in the work that I do to understanding the way stories work. It’s something that has helped me very much in law.”
Following his teaching experience, he realized it was time to “do something” with his life, so he decided to study law. Following his graduation from law school at the University of Idaho, he taught at the University of Toledo College of Law and then served as a judicial clerk at the Idaho Supreme Court. Later, he was offered a job with the Ada County Public Defender’s Office.
“I didn’t know what it meant to be a public defender, and I didn’t particularly plan that, but I needed a job and so I took it. Like with many things, I was very, very lucky. It turned out to be a nice blend of my attitude and skill set, and worked out well.”
Nevin is founder and past president of the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. In addition to his criminal defense work as a partner in the law firm Nevin, Benjamin and McKay, he teaches part-time at the University of Idaho College of Law.
Written by Kathleen Craven