A Maricopa County prosecutor told a criminal defense attorney in December that his Pakistani-American client “looks more and more like a Muslim terrorist," Phoenix New Times has learned.
Deputy County Attorney Richard Serden made the comment in court before a hearing for Umar Qureshi, who was charged with manslaughter for his role in a car accident that killed a 6-year-old boy, sparking a motion by the defense to dismiss the entire case.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office removed Serden from the case after the remark. Amanda Steele, a spokesperson for the office, said "action was taken" regarding Serden's statement, but did not offer any further comment.
"I can tell you that it was reviewed internally and the appropriate action was taken," Steele said.
Qureshi's criminal defense attorney at the time, Adam Feldman, cited the comment in a motion to dismiss the case one day later.
"There can be no dispute that Mr. Serden's words were a manifestation of bias and prejudice against Mr. Qureshi based upon his Pakistani nationality, Middle Eastern physical features, and Muslim religion," Feldman wrote.
Qureshi's mother, Tahira Qureshi, told New Times that her son is not even Muslim.
"He does not know even the basics of Islam," she said. "He doesn’t even know how to pray. He never went to mosque."
Kathy Frias, the mother of the 6-year-old boy who was killed, said on Tuesday that she questioned whether Serden's comment has any relevance to the case.
"I don't know what was said that day," Frias said. "I wasn't there. That was my baby. I am a victim, and I deserve rights, too."
Serden's comment comes after several controversies involving Islam in the Maricopa County Attorney's office under County Attorney Bill Montgomery, including inviting his prosecutors to attend a seminar on extremism by an anti-Muslim speaker, and shelling out county funds so local police could attend a similar seminar.
Montgomery defended himself last year after the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that he personally intervened in plea negotiations for two women charged with burglarizing a Tempe mosque. One received probation; the other woman's case remains pending. In 2014, Montgomery used taxpayer dollars to pay John Guandolo, an anti-Muslim speaker, to give his prosecutors a seminar on Islamic extremism.
Steele did not respond to a question on whether Serden's comments were inspired by training under Guandolo.
On December 3, 2018, Serden walked by Qureshi, who was standing in a Maricopa County Superior Court house hallway. Serden entered the courtroom before hearings began and made the remark “in a highly audible voice” to Feldman.
“Every time I see your client, he looks more and more like a Muslim terrorist,” Serden said, according to Feldman’s court filing.
“Holy shit! That is the most racist thing I have ever heard you say,” Feldman wrote of his own response.
Alexander Brown, another defense attorney who was in court on an unrelated case, confirmed to New Times that he heard Serden’s comment. He said he was having a discussion with Feldman at the time of the statement.
"We were both completely in shock,” Brown said in a phone interview. “I looked at him and said, ‘Did he just say what I think he said?’”
Isidoro Contreras, an interim court bailiff, also acknowledged hearing the comment, according to Feldman's filing. Contreras could not be reached for comment. Several inmates were present for the comment, along with Deputy County Attorney Christine Trusken.
Feldman argued that the comment demonstrated bias from Serden against Muslims and that his comment created a "palpable stigma" against Qureshi that cannot be removed.
"When Mr. Serden issued his remarks in open court, he ensured that dismissal with prejudice was the only viable remedy to counter such egregious conduct," the filing stated.
"By associating Mr. Qureshi with a Muslim terrorist in public, he has irreparably tainted any future jury pool" Feldman wrote, arguing that Serden violated the Arizona Rules of Professional Conduct with his remark.
Feldman declined to comment for this story.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office acknowledged that Serden made an "inappropriate and unprofessional remark comment" about Qureshi in a response to Feldman's motion to dismiss the case.
But Deputy County Attorney Martha Blackman argued that the statement was made in private and "did not rise to the level of prosecutorial misconduct justifying a dismissal with prejudice."
The question of whether Serden's comment was "public" is key because State Bar rules prohibit lawyers from making statements that will be disseminated "by means of public communication" and could affect the adjudication of a case.
"In this case, the statement was not included in a press release to the media nor was it part of a statement during an interview with the news media. No media was even present during the hearing," Blackman wrote. "Mr Serden's comment was directed at defense counsel in a courtroom prior to morning calendar and off the record."
Blackman argued that — because the judge had not yet taken to the bench — Serden did not make the comment in "open court." She noted Feldman did not raise the comment during Qureshi's hearing before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge George Foster.
The case has not been dismissed. Feldman, meanwhile, withdrew as Qureshi's attorney on March 4 due to a "conflict of interest."
Frias, in her comments on Wednesday, challenged the idea that Serden's statement should have resulted in a dismissal.
Qureshi's case stems from an incident on June 17, 2013, in which he was sitting in the front passenger seat of a vehicle driven by Frias.
Frias was driving the 31-year-old Qureshi, who could not drive at the time, as a favor to his mother, according to court filings. Frias' 15-year-old and 6-year-old sons were sitting in the back passenger seats.
"As they drove northbound on State Route 101, Qureshi began to argue with Frias over the way she had disciplined [her 6-year-old son] by taking away his privilege to play video games," according to court records.
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Qureshi allegedly became irate, grabbed the steering wheel, and caused Frias to lose control of the vehicle. The car skidded sideways and struck a concrete barrier.
The younger child suffered fatal injuries during the accident.
Qureshi was charged with one count of manslaughter and two counts of reckless endangerment for the incident. He faces a maximum of 27 years in prison. His attorneys have emphasized that he has a history of mental illness that have led to delusions, a manic-depressive tendency, and psychotic episodes.
He is being held at Lower Buckeye Jail. Although he had bonded out of jail, he was arrested in January 2018 at the Canadian border in Washington State.