As jurors debated verdict, tensions, pressure grew

Published December 6, 2005

TAMPA - Toward the end, their arguments grew louder. Their tempers grew shorter. Their nerves frayed.

Most jurors wanted to acquit Sami Al-Arian of the dozens of charges against him. Two jurors, and sometimes three, clung to their belief of his guilt. When the majority asked the holdouts what evidence had convinced them, sparks flew.

"Their explanation was that they didn't have to tell us," said Juror 243, a woman on the seven-man, five-woman jury. Jurors' names were not released for security reasons.

The anger and frustration, slowly mounting after 13 days of deliberation, reached a peak when one juror in the minority sent a note to U.S. District Judge James S. Moody without telling the others.

"I feel I am being whipped to change and I am not alone," the juror wrote. "My nerves and my conscience are being whipped into submission."

By Tuesday afternoon, jurors realized they couldn't agree on all the charges. They acquitted Al-Arian of eight of the 17 counts against him, including the charge of conspiring to maim and murder people overseas.

Two co-defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, were acquitted of all charges. A third, Hatem Naji Fariz, was found not guilty of 25 counts. Jurors deadlocked on the remaining eight.

The decision marked the end of six months in which this group of people, once strangers, spent nearly every day together.

Back in June, they showed up from across the bay area - Lakeland, Port Richey, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and other cities. Some knew of the case. Others had heard Al-Arian's name only in passing.

Several tried to avoid jury duty because of hardships, and were denied. Some juggled job responsibilities and families. Most showed up that first day, saw the television cameras and security barricades and wondered what they had gotten themselves into.

Members of the jury interviewed by reporters continued to be reluctant to allow their full names to be used because of the controversial nature of the trial.

As the weeks passed, they formed their own cliques and tried most every restaurant in downtown Tampa. "Some are better than others," said Juror 155, a woman named Thanh.

They steered clear of television news and read newspapers with the stories of Al-Arian clipped out.

Month after month, they sat through hours of testimony, watched graphic videos and listened to days worth of wiretapped phone conversations. Some of them took page after page of notes. Others, like Juror 243, mostly just listened.

"I have a very good memory," she said.

In any case, most of them ended up on the same page Tuesday.

"The evidence wasn't there to put a guilty verdict on it," said Juror 112, a man named Todd from Lakeland. "It just wasn't there. The dots didn't connect."

A common sentiment.

"I didn't see the evidence," said Juror 32, a man.

But two or three jurors did. The group that had remained so civil and friendly had a few scrapes in those final days inside the jury room.

"The debate got very heavy," said Juror 155, who voted for acquittal. "Some of us are very headstrong. It got very emotional."

Several jurors said Tuesday they will carry away a different perspective of the justice system and a deeper respect for the presumption of innocence.

"People assume. They assume guilt," said Juror 112. "You really need to get the facts first. I sat in that room for six months. Until you've sat through something like this . . . you cannot sit in your car or at your house and determine guilt."

Thanh, Juror 155, agreed.

"Not everything is black and white," she said.

Tuesday afternoon, after six months together, it was over.

Back in the jury room, people hugged one another goodbye. A few cried. Others exchanged phone numbers. Then they stepped outside to face the swarm of television cameras and reporters and to reclaim their lives.

Juror 155 headed home to Lakeland on Tuesday evening, flipped on the television and got an early start at picking up where she had left off:

"I watched the news," she said.