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Judge: 'Good jurors' ready in Al-Arian trial

As the pool is whittled down, Judge James Moody signals the trial may stay in Tampa.

Published May 19, 2005

TAMPA - The presiding federal court judge in the case of accused terrorist supporter Sami Al-Arian praised jury prospects Wednesday, signaling his reluctance to move the trial to another city.

Midway through the third day of jury selection, U.S. District Judge James Moody took stock of those who had made it through the first cuts.

"The ones that are left, those seem like good jurors to me all the way through," he said.

By day's end, defense attorneys and prosecutors had narrowed the field from an initial pool of about 500 to 89. They will spend a fourth day today winnowing those who are left in an attempt to seat a jury of 12, along with seven alternates.

Attorneys for two of Al-Arian's three co-defendants, however, repeated their concern that their limited time to screen prospects will allow bias to seep into the jury box. And they continued to question whether Al-Arian could get a fair trial in Tampa.

Al-Arian, Hatem Najah Fariz, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, face a 53-count indictment that accuses them of racketeering, conspiracy and providing material support to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the government considers a terrorist group.

Stephen Bernstein, who represents Hammoudeh, noted the small percentage of jurors who have made it this far, given the 500 initially sent surveys.

"That should tell you something about the process and why it should not be held here," he said.

Moody has put off a ruling on whether to move the trial until the effort to seat a jury in Tampa is finished.

The case has received widespread media attention and was the focus of attack ads during former USF president Betty Castor's unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate last year. Al-Arian is a former professor at USF. Moody said Tuesday that defense attorneys were being given plenty of time to interview prospective jurors, and had the added and unrequired benefit of a 26-page questionnaire each prospect returned.

Most of the people removed from the jury pool over three days have been struck from the list because the prospect of a trial lasting six months or longer would pose a financial or medical hardship. Some people were removed because they said they would have a problem with defendants who didn't speak up in their own defense, even though they are not required to do so. Only a few were removed for stated bias.

One woman, a flight attendant, recounted in a shaky voice Wednesday her experience having to make an emergency landing in Tulsa, Okla., on the morning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In her questionnaire, she said she was not sure she could set aside that experience in deciding the fate of four other accused terrorists. But she said she had done some soul-searching the night before, and had decided she could. The judge let her stay.

Another man was removed from the jury pool when he expressed his belief, shaped by reading, that Al-Arian is only being prosecuted because the government wants to show it is making some headway in the war on terror.

Opening statements are scheduled to begin June 6 if the trial is not moved to another city.

[Last modified May 19, 2005, 00:42:10]

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