Al-Arian jury puts trial in doubt (8/30)Aug. 30, 2005
St. Petersburg Times
One juror sent a note to the judge saying some jurors had been discussing their opinions on the trial.
By Meg Laughlin
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TAMPA-- Was there jury misconduct?
That is the question the federal judge in the trial of Sami Al-Arian and three other defendants must answer in the next few days. Then he must decide whether to dismiss up to three jurors and, then, whether to declare a mistrial in the 13th week of the trial.
At the end of last week, a juror sent an anonymous note to the judge asking: "Could you just remind the jury to keep their opinion to their self?"
On Monday, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody questioned each juror one by one, in the absence of the other jurors, about the note and the reason for it. Were any jurors discussing the case and giving opinions, he wanted to know.
Of the 12 jurors and six alternates, 15 said they had not heard any discussion or opinions pertaining to the trial and knew nothing about the note. But two said they had heard discussion and opinions. One of those two said she had written the note to the judge. A third juror said she had advised the concerned juror to write the note.
One juror, identified as juror No. 214, told the court he did not write the note, but "heard people making different comments about some things, comments about the school (Islamic Academy of Florida)."
"This particular juror believed this was a front for the PIJ," juror No. 214 said.
Al-Arian and three other defendants are charged with trying to use Islamic organizations in the Tampa area - including the Islamic Academy of Florida and the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, an Islamic think tank - as fronts to raise money for the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for more than 100 deaths in Israel and its occupied territories.
The juror who sits next to No. 214, juror No. 243, said she had written the note because she had heard comments from "one guy" in the jury box: "Little comments that WISE and IAF were all a front and something about somebody killed a member of Islamic Jihad," juror 243 said.
She said the juror who made the comments sat behind her and wore Hawaiian shirts.
She said he talked to two male jurors in the row in front of her, even though they denied hearing anything.
"He's just talking in general when he's out, to the same two guys, making negative comments. He has already made his conclusion; he's so pro-government," juror 243 said.
In the courtroom Monday, during a sidebar discussion with Judge Moody, defense attorney Stephen Bernstein asked the judge to "exclude one juror" - the one who is alleged to have talked about the case. Bernstein told the St. Petersburg Times he would also ask the judge to remove the two jurors who are alleged to have heard that juror. Then, Bernstein said, he'll "ask for a mistrial."
The judge asked attorneys to research other cases where similar things have happened, and let him know the results.
Then, he said, he'd decide what to do.
"This is potentially serious because jurors are not supposed to discuss the case or reach conclusions before all of the evidence is in," said criminal defense attorney Neal Sonnett, a legal expert who is not involved in the case.
Sonnett, a former federal prosecutor in Miami and past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the judge would have to "weigh the damage" but had "wide discretion in choosing the appropriate remedy."
"But that juror who gave his opinion has to be gone," he said.
Juror No. 247, who sits next to the juror who wrote the note, told the judge that the concerned juror asked her if she should write the note.
Her advice: "That's what the court system is all about - your right to express yourself."
And so, the note. And probably, fewer jurors. And possibly, a mistrial.