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A standard of justice

A U.S. district judge upheld a fundamental tenet of American justice by ruling that Sami Al-Arian and his co-defendants won't be convicted through guilt by association.

Published August 10, 2004

"Personal guilt" is a basic standard of our criminal law. It means a person can't be held responsible for the criminal activity of another unless there is an active conspiracy between them. It means we don't subscribe to guilt by association.

This simple principle was upheld by U.S. District Court Judge James Moody when he ruled this month on the standard the government will have to meet to win a conviction of former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian and his three co-defendants. The men are accused of supporting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that has used suicide bombings as a terror tactic in Israel and is believed responsible for more than 100 deaths.

Moody said it wouldn't be enough just to demonstrate that Al-Arian and the others sent money to PIJ, a group that our government has designated as a foreign terrorist organization. He said the government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants sent funds for the purpose of furthering the group's illegal activities.

Government prosecutors vigorously object to Moody's interpretation of the law and will likely appeal, but Moody set the proper standard. The judge upheld a fundamental tenet of American justice that prevents the government from prosecuting every member or associate of an organization just because the group has engaged in illegal activities.

For example, during the McCarthy era, Congress determined that the Communist Party in this country was dominated by foreign influences and committed to the overthrow of our government. But the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly held that individual members could not be prosecuted on that basis alone. The court required proof that members specifically intended to pursue the group's illegal goals.

The labor movement, the civil rights movement and today's animal rights and anti-abortion movements have been marred by the violent acts of a few zealots. If the government were free to punish everyone who peacefully supported these movements due to the violence of some, political expression would be sharply curtailed.

Moody noted that the statutes under which Al-Arian and the others are charged, such as the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, are written so broadly that renting a hotel room or giving a taxi ride to a member of the PIJ is enough to impose criminal liability on hotel clerks and taxi drivers. The government has already tried to prosecute a Saudi graduate student in Idaho who ran Web sites for groups supporting suicide bombings. He was acquitted.

Rather than find the laws unconstitutional, Moody narrowed their applicability. If the government has proof of active collaboration between Al-Arian and PIJ, then demonstrating that Al-Arian is guilty of furthering the terrorist aims of the group should not be difficult. But our constitutional principles make it essential that the government demonstrate individual culpability before sending someone to prison for terrorism.

[Last modified August 9, 2004, 23:41:19]


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