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6-month Al-Arian trial near end

Jurors have reached verdicts on two defendants, but deadlocked on the others. They continue deliberations today.

Published December 6, 2005

Sami Al-Arian, a former professor at the University of Florida, is accused of conspiring to raise money for violent acts in the Mideast.

After a six-month ordeal that included 80 witnesses and a warehouse of documents, jurors in the trial of Sami Al-Arian reached verdicts Monday on two of four defendants.

But they were deadlocked on charges against the other two defendants, so the judge sealed the verdicts and asked the seven men and five women to continue deliberating.

"It is your duty to reach a verdict if you can do so," U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. said.

Moody told jurors that if they disagreed with a decision made by a "substantial majority" of the jury, they should re-examine their beliefs.

But, he warned, "Remember at all times that no juror is expected to give up an honest belief."

Whether or not verdicts are reached on all counts, the trial could end today - possibly with a few lesser counts undecided. The judge advised attorneys that he would not send jurors back to deliberate for a second time if they can't reach a decision on the undecided counts.

News of the partial verdicts came at about 3 p.m., during the 13th day of deliberations. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants Ghassan Ballut and Hatem Fariz and their families had rushed to the courthouse, alerted that jurors had questions.

Al-Arian and defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh, who have been jailed without bond since February 2003, were already in the courthouse waiting in a holding room, where they have been taken each day during deliberations.

The four defendants are charged with conspiring to raise money for violent acts committed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for hundreds of deaths in Israel and the occupied territories.

Besides the main conspiracy charges, which could carry life sentences with convictions, the lesser charges are money laundering, obstruction of justice and immigration fraud.

Word of the partial verdicts came as a jolt for defendants' families, who rushed to the courthouse.

Sami Al-Arian's wife, Nahla Al-Arian, got a call on her cell phone after 2 p.m. A verdict may have been reached, one of her husband's lawyers said.

" "Habibi, the verdict was reached," she told her 15-year-old son, Ali, when he walked through the door. Habibi means "my love" in Arabic.

Ali thought her mother was kidding.

Then he saw the Norwegian documentary filmmakers who have been following the family since before the trial. One of them was holding a fuzzy gray microphone over his mother's head. He saw a newspaper reporter and photographer sitting on the carpet of the family's Temple Terrace apartment.

"Go wash up and change, we're going to court," Nahla said. But they changed their minds after a lawyer called to say no verdict would be read Monday.

One of the other defendants, Fariz, was flipping hamburgers at a barbecue at a local school when he got the call. He rushed to his car, changed into the dark suit he keeps in the trunk, then raced to the courthouse.

The tension was palpable as defendants, family members and attorneys gathered in the courtroom and stared at jurors, looking for a clue to their thoughts.

Several of the defendants' relatives wiped away tears as the judge then explained the partial verdicts.

When Moody asked jurors for the verdict forms they had reached, a female juror stood up to retrieve the forms, indicating that she had been elected the jury's forewoman.

Several defense attorneys smiled at each other upon realizing that the jury had elected her. During the trial, she had been more responsive to defense attorneys than some of the other jurors, laughing at their wisecracks and sitting up and leaning forward during cross-examinations.

When she returned with the completed forms, the judge looked at them dispassionately and ordered jurors to continue deliberating on the undecided counts.

But even if there is no verdict on the few undecided counts, the lengthy trial of Sami Al-Arian and three co-defendants may well be over soon.

-- Staff writer Vanessa Gezari contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 6, 2005, 09:34:18]

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