The U.S. government's failure to convict a former college professor accused of being a key figure in a Palestinian terrorist group underscores the difficulty federal prosecutors face in bringing Patriot Act evidence into the criminal courts.
In a stunning blow to the government, Sami Al-Arian, who was fired from the University of South Florida after his indictment in February 2003, was acquitted of nearly half the federal charges against him, and the jury deadlocked on the rest. More than 80 witnesses testified over five months of trial.
"I think it's a setback for the government, and I think it might illustrate that the Patriot Act might not be the magic bullet prosecutors thought it was when it was passed," said John J. Farmer, a former New Jersey attorney general and federal prosecutor who served on the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Al-Arian's indictment had been hailed by the government as a triumph of the Patriot Act, which for the first time allowed secret wiretaps and other intelligence collected over nine years to be used to charge Al-Arian and others with supporting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Before the act, it was more difficult for prosecutors to get access to information gathered by intelligence agents.
The government said the law allowed them to tear down the North American cell of the notorious PIJ and prosecute the kingpins. Critics said the Patriot Act gave government agents the power to overstep their bounds and persecute a man who was nothing more than a vocal activist for the Palestinian cause.
Farmer said the verdicts call into question the ability of prosecutors to use the secretly gathered intelligence as evidence in a criminal case. He noted that intelligence investigations are not designed to provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the standard in a criminal court.
In this case, the intelligence was presented to jurors in the form of hundreds of transcripts of telephone calls and faxes in which Al-Arian and his co-defendants discussed the mission and future of the terrorist group, and appeared to celebrate suicide bombings that killed Israelis.
Jurors said there was plenty of evidence, but none it linked Al-Arian and the others directly to violent acts of the PIJ on the other side of the world.
The U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday it hasn't decided if Al-Arian will be retried on the charges on which the jury couldn't decide, including three key conspiracy counts. "We remain focused on the important task at hand, which is to protect our country through our ongoing vigorous prosecution of terrorism cases," the agency said in a statement. "While we respect the jury's verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in court against Sami Al-Arian and his co-defendants."
Al-Arian remained jailed Wednesday, while prosecutors decide on whether to retry him on the deadlocked charges. His attorneys did not immediately return a call seeking comment, reported AP. P.T.