More than two years after his arrest, jury selection in the trial of Sami Al-Arian, the former USF professor accused of supporting a terrorist group, is scheduled to start today at the federal courthouse in Tampa.
The selection process will begin despite defense lawyers’ request for a change of venue. Al-Arian’s legal team has claimed that intense media coverage of the investigation and subsequent arrest of Al-Arian makes it impossible for him to receive a fair trial in Tampa.
U.S. District Judge James Moody delayed the start of the trial until June 6 to give him time to consider the motion. Meanwhile, both the prosecution and defense will conduct brief interviews of possible jurors in order to eliminate juror bias, but that may be complicated in a case with terrorist overtones.
“The terrorism aspect is always trouble,” said Charles H. Rose, a former intelligence officer and professor of law at Stetson University. “For someone who lost a relative in a terrorist bombing or someone who lost a relative in Iraq, it would be difficult for them to be impartial.”
In an article from The Tampa Tribune, Moody said he intends to bring in 50 prospective jurors each day. But finding jurists who have not made up their mind about the case may prove difficult.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, a survey initiated by Al-Arian’s defense team showed that of 328 potential jurists who responded, 60 percent believed Al-Arian to be guilty
The change-of-venue motion singles out The Tampa Tribune, which ran numerous stories linking Al-Arian to terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad prior to his arrest.
According to the motion, “The Tampa Tribune has influenced the community to the extent that it is impossible to sit a fair, impartial jury in this case.”
The motion also states that much of the publicity has fostered the belief that the community “was unsafe because of the presence of Sami Al-Arian.”
“People’s minds have been irreversibly damaged by the media,” said Al-Arian’s wife, Nahla. “For 10 years, The Tampa Tribune has been responsible for defaming my husband.”
Highlighting the advantages a change in location can offer, Rose cited a defense motion from the O.J. Simpson trial in which the trial was moved from Simpson’s home town of Brentwood to Los Angeles.
“As a result, (O.J. Simpson) got a very different jury and was acquitted, and probably would not have been acquitted if (the case) had been tried in Brentwood.”
The Al-Arian trial should indicate how legislation passed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 has altered courtroom proceedings. Regardless of whether Al-Arian is convicted, the trial will likely set precedents for how sections of the Patriot Act and secret evidence can be used in future trials of suspected terrorists.
“What you’re going to see is an application of evidence that was acquired pursuant to the Patriot Act,” Rose said. “It’s going to be e-mails, phone taps, bank statements, probably records from his mosque where he worships and any other third-party records that the government had access to.”
According to Rose, the prosecution will try to convict Al-Arian of terrorist activity by using actual evidence or will attempt to say he is guilty because of who he associated with.
“My guess is that (the prosecution) has some e-mails and other information that indicates some sort of involvement with an organization that has ties to terrorist activity,” Rose said. “I would be very surprised if they substantively had evidence where he himself was involved, because if they had it, it would have been all over the news.”
Another controversial aspect of the trial is the use of classified evidence, which can be filed by the government prosecutor and later admitted by the judge.
“(The court) will remove the media from the courtroom and will go into closed session,” Rose said. “This almost never takes place in federal court.”
The advantage for the prosecution if this happens is if you win, no one will know what the source of your information was,” Rose said. “If you lose, you can always say it was because the judge did not allow you to admit evidence that was classified.”
Determining what can or cannot be allowed in high-profile terrorist cases is a difficult decision to make.
“It’s troubling that we try to play the War on Terrorism both ways,” Rose said. “Sometimes we act like it’s a criminal activity that should be prosecuted in a federal court, and other times we act like it’s a military war that should be handled through military channels.”
Al-Arian taught at USF for 15 years as a computer engineer professor until he was placed on paid leave in September 2001 after USF received bomb threats following his appearance on The O’Reilly Factor.
He was fired in 2003 after his arrest. He and three others were charged with supporting and funding Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization opposed to Israel and Western global influence.