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Carnage description debated in Al-Arian trial

Prosecutors want to describe three bombings to avoid calling witnesses. Defense lawyers say the language is inflammatory.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published July 1, 2005


TAMPA - Just how much gruesome language is acceptable?

"Pieces of body parts ... decapitated heads ... the stench of burning flesh ... internal organs falling out" - that's the language prosecutors in the federal trial of Sami Al-Arian want to use to describe three suicide bombings in Israel and the occupied territories, to which they hope to link the four defendants.

But defense attorneys won't have it, calling the choice of written language "gruesome and inflammatory."

Thursday morning in federal court, with the jury on vacation, both sides debated what written language they could agree to - stipulate to - that would keep prosecutors from putting witnesses to the bombings on the stand. Prosecutor Cherie Krigsman said her team had already "stipulated away" 14 other suicide operations with "bare language" and were reluctant to do the same with remaining bombings.

"We did this in good faith ... with the understanding that we'd be able to build a fuller picture of the three acts that were left," Krigsman told U.S. District Court Judge James S. Moody.

Prosecutors have charged defendants with "conspiring to provide material aid" to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the 17 suicide operations, which killed more than 100 people. To get convictions, they hope to show that the four Tampa men on trial - Sami Al-Arian, Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatem Fariz and Ghassan Ballut - used Islamic charitable organizations in the United States as fronts for raising money for the violent acts of the PIJ.

To give emotional impact to the money-raising charges, prosecutors want to show some of the horrific acts that they say the defendants helped fund.

Defense attorneys, as well as the judge, have said prosecutors should concentrate on showing financial links to the PIJ - if they have such evidence - rather than the violent acts. Both sides have agreed that the defendants had "no direct involvement" in the suicide bombings.

And yet, without showing the human cost of the bombings, the prosecutors forfeit a substantial amount of emotional impact in their presentation.

Linking the dry facts of financial transactions and wiretap conversations to bloody outcomes in the Middle East was clearly a major part of the prosecution's strategy at the outset of the trial. Government preparations included, among other things, staging a mock terrorist bombing by blowing up an empty bus and videotaping it to demonstrate to jurors what happens during such attacks. Use of that videotape was ruled out by the judge.

Why, then, would the government lawyers agree to forgo such graphic testimony? "By agreeing to the stipulations, prosecutors make the trial go faster and they avoid the chance that, if they get convictions, they will be overturned because of prejudicial information," says attorney Neil Sonnett, chairman of the American Bar Association's criminal justice section.

But Krigsman made it clear that prosecutors were reluctant to sanitize their case more than they already have.

"We stipulated away a busload of middle schoolers burning to death ... and the attack on the children's festival," Krigsman told Moody.

She said a Jan. 22, 1995, double suicide bombing at Beit Lid, Israel, was "linked to one of our best pieces of evidence," and that prosecutors "didn't want to be forced to give it up."

That evidence is a "Feb. 10, 1995, letter that Sami Al-Arian wrote to Al Shatti, a friend in Kuwait," said Krigsman.

In the letter, according to the indictment, Al-Arian asked for money for "the poor, hungry and destitute ... families of the martyrs" so that "operations such as these can continue."

The government must convince jurors that the letter was delivered, and that Al-Arian did raise money for the families of the dead suicide bombers, and that doing so encouraged future acts of terrorism. If it can do this, the details of the Beit Lid bombing will be especially meaningful, because they will show an attempt to capitalize on the horrific murders.

Moody said he would make a decision about the stipulations by July 11.

[Last modified July 1, 2005, 01:23:13]


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