Despite accent, caller's threats were clear, witness testifies


Laura Thompson said she had no difficulty understanding the message from an irate caller with a South Asian accent -- he threatened to get a gun and shoot Howard Circuit Judge Dennis Sweeney.

Ms. Thompson testified yesterday at the Circuit Court trial of Saif U. Khan of Arlington, Va., recalling how she asked the caller to slow down and repeat what he had said so that she could hear him clearly.

Speaking in clipped sentences, the man repeated his threat, Ms. Thompson said. "He said to me that he was going to shoot the judge," testified Ms. Thompson, supervisor of the civil department at Circuit Court Clerk's Office. "He was very angry."

The 41-year-old native of Pakistan is charged with threatening a state official and misusing a telephone by calling Ms. Thompson at least five times in October 1993 and repeatedly threatening Judge Sweeney because of a ruling in a civil lawsuit.

Mr. Khan, a mechanical engineer who has lived in the United States for nine years, could be sentenced to up to three years in prison if convicted. His trial is expected to conclude today.

Janette Deboissiere, a Columbia attorney for Mr. Khan, said in her opening statement to jurors that Ms. Thompson incorrectly heard her client. She said he is easy to misunderstand, particularly when excited.

The attorney had Mr. Khan read part of a newspaper story to jurors so that they could hear his accent. Some words were difficult to understand, but others could be understood clearly.

Ms. Thompson testified that she was "100 percent sure" she understood Mr. Khan, who had identified himself during their conversations on Oct. 13 and Oct. 14, 1993. She added that she recognized Mr. Khan's voice because she had spoken with him several previous times.

Mr. Khan was outraged that Judge Sweeney did not hold a hearing before dismissing portions of a lawsuit he filed on his own behalf over a traffic accident he had along Interstate 95 in March 1992, Ms. Thompson said.

Ms. Thompson said she told Mr. Khan that she would have to report his threats to authorities. She said she also gave him the chance to apologize for his statements, which would have enabled her to avoid reporting him.

"He never said he was upset and didn't mean it," she said.

Judge Sweeney testified that in September 1993 he granted an insurance company's request to be freed from the lawsuit. He said it was necessary for Mr. Khan to seek a judgment against the motorist who struck his car before pursuing a suit against the company.

Judge Sweeney made the decision in a written ruling, without holding a hearing, which is a typical procedure in civil cases, he testified.

After the alleged threat, the Howard County Sheriff's Office immediately beefed up security at the courthouse in Ellicott City, said Sergeant Ronald Esworthy.

Mr. Khan -- unaware that there was a warrant for his arrest -- called the Howard County Police Department three times on Oct. 16, 1993, to request an investigation of the insurance company he felt was improperly handling his accident claim, police Sergeant Bradford Thomas testified.

Mr. Khan was arrested later that day after investigators traced his telephone calls and got the address where he was making the calls, Sergeant Thomas said.

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