Al-Arian seeks change of venue (5/3)May 3, 2005
St. Petersburg Times
His lawyers, citing constant news coverage and bias among potential jurors, want the trial moved out of state.
By Brady Dennis
Link: Click hereTAMPA - Attorneys for Sami Al-Arian, the former University of South Florida professor accused of raising money for a Palestinian terrorist group, have asked a federal judge to move the upcoming trial out of Florida.
Citing the constant barrage of news coverage, the recent U.S. Senate campaign in which Al-Arian became a central topic of debate, and evidence of "serious bias and prejudice" among potential jurors, attorneys said their client could not receive a fair trial in Tampa.
"The pressure to convict him in this community would be tremendous," the attorneys wrote in the filing to U.S. District Judge James Moody.
Attorneys William Moffitt and Linda Moreno said in their motion that during the past 10 years, "the print media in Tampa has associated Dr. Al-Arian with every act of terrorism that has occurred on American soil."
They claim that because of this "media harangue," "a significant portion of the community believe him to be guilty."
Moffitt and Moreno said the recent U.S. Senate campaign drew even more attention to Al-Arian's case. The references began during the Democratic primaries between Betty Castor and Peter Deutsch, when the Deutsch campaign began referring to USF as "Jihad University" and making allegations that Castor failed to take action when she found "a terrorist in her midst."
The negative publicity grew more intense, the motion claims, when Castor faced Republican Mel Martinez in the general election and local airwaves were saturated with ads featuring Al-Arian. During the first televised debate of the campaign, NBC's Tim Russert spent one-third of the time asking the candidates about Al-Arian.
And then came the questionnaires.
Al-Arian's attorneys claim that prejudice is rampant in the answers to surveys the court sent to prospective jurors. Of 328 potential jurors who returned the questionnaires, 155 already have been dismissed after saying that they had made up their minds that Al-Arian was guilty or because they made prejudicial comments about Muslims and people of Arab descent.
To bolster their claims, Al-Arian's attorneys submitted a report by a Duke University professor who is an expert on juror bias. The report states that while prejudice against people from the Middle East exists in other communities, it is exacerbated in Tampa because potential jurors have been exposed to years of media reports about Al-Arian.
Included in the recent filing is a community survey conducted in four cities - Tampa, Tallahassee, Miami and Atlanta - in which respondents were asked about their knowledge of Al-Arian's case.
Ninety-five percent of people in Tampa knew about Al-Arian. In Tallahassee, nearly 75 percent of people had heard of him; in Miami, more than 60 percent. His recognition rate in Atlanta, however, was 33 percent.
In Tampa, nearly 60 percent of people believed, without ever seeing any evidence in court, that Al-Arian was definitely guilty or probably guilty. That number fell to 34 percent in Tallahassee, 28 percent in Miami and less than 15 percent in Atlanta.
Regarding the media coverage of Al-Arian, his attorneys especially took issue with the Tampa Tribune and reporter Michael Fechter, saying that the "prejudicial and inflammatory reporting about Dr. Al-Arian" over the years had unfairly portrayed Al-Arian as a terrorist and "led many to question whether the newspaper had abandoned its role as a neutral observer."
Janet Weaver, the Tribune's executive editor, said the newspaper's stories on Al-Arian were subjected to a rigorous review for accuracy and fairness before they were published, and that Al-Arian was given an opportunity to comment in each story.
"I believe it's been accurate and it's been appropriate," Weaver said of the newspaper's coverage.
On Monday, Al-Arian's notoriety also prompted one of his co-defendants, Hatim Naji Fariz, to also ask for a change of venue. The federal public defender's office, which represents Fariz, argued that "Mr. Fariz will be denied his constitutional right to trial by an impartial jury if he is to be tried in Tampa alongside Dr. Al-Arian."
Al-Arian and three other men are scheduled to be tried on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges later this month, facing potential life sentences if convicted.
The four men are accused of using an academic think tank and Palestinian charity founded by Al-Arian as a fundraising front for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The terrorist group is believed to be linked to attacks in Israel that have claimed more than 100 lives.
Jury selection was scheduled to begin May 16. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa declined to comment Monday on the motions for a change of venue, and no hearing date has been set.
--Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.