Al-Arian case shows confusing defense tactics

It seems rather unusual that after more than four years of heightened controversy, a year of waiting to go to trial and a five-month trial, the defense of Sami Al-Arian, a former USF professor, would boil down to merely eight words instead of, oh, maybe eight witnesses.

But that’s exactly what happened Thursday at a courthouse in downtown Tampa when the defense of Al-Arian, accused of funding the violent activities of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), declined to call a single witness.

Perhaps all the work was done during the cross-examination. Al-Arian’s defense is putting the burden on the government’s witnesses rather than risk damage that may come with calling their own.

However, even though many in the legal system interpret this as a smart move, outside observers are left scratching their heads in amazement, wondering how much work the defense actually did.

The defense’s decision not to call a witness came a day after Al-Arian and his lawyers argued loudly inside the courtroom during the middle of the trial, another indication that Al-Arian’s defense may be in disarray.

The question at hand seems to be whether being involved with the legal activities of an organization that performs criminal acts is in itself a criminal act.

The prosecution presented some solid, but not irrefutable, evidence that Al-Arian knowingly contributed to the violent activities of the PIJ.

The evidence includes two early 1990s videos of Al-Arian expressing his support of an “armed struggle” against Israel, 1993 bank records showing Al-Arian sent money to families of PIJ members who killed Israeli soldiers and a letter he wrote to a Kuwaiti legislator requesting money be sent to the families of suicide bombers so “operations such as these can continue.”

Al-Arian’s attorney Bill Moffitt said last week that “in the United States, we punish actors, not speakers,” and that Al-Arian’s words are protected by the First Amendment.

Putting all the strength of the defense on the government’s witnesses seems to be putting all the proverbial eggs in one basket.

But Al-Arian’s defense is hoping its cross-examination of the government’s witnesses provided a strong defense. It’ll be up to the jury to decide if the defense is right. If it isn’t, Al-Arian might wonder if there wasn’t anything more his defense could have done.