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Plea deal overcame the discord

Disagreements appear to have triggered a request from one of Sami Al-Arian's lawyers to withdraw from the case.

Published April 24, 2006

TAMPA - In the secret courtroom negotiations over Sami Al-Arian's plea deal last week, a federal magistrate said he didn't agree with defense attorney Bill Moffitt that there were "irreconcilable conflicts" between the men.

"I found no evidence of that," said U.S. Magistrate Thomas B. McCoun. "There may have been disagreements. ... I don't think anything was irreconcilable."

At the end of Al-Arian's trial in December, Moffitt asked to withdraw from the case. McCoun's words are the first official acknowledgment of what might have happened - disagreements between lawyer and client. Moffitt, who is recuperating from knee-replacement surgery in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment Monday.

"Nevertheless, Linda Moreno" - Al-Arian's other attorney - "and I wrote most of that plea deal on my desk," Moffitt said last week.

McCoun told Al-Arian that federal prosecutors were working with his attorneys to get him deported quickly, but it might not happen.

"As you've seen in the case of Mr. Hammoudeh, it may be a matter of months," said McCoun. But, he said, everyone hoped to "avoid a similar circumstance" with Al-Arian.

The trial of Sami Al-Arian, Sameeh Hammoudeh and two other co-defendants, charged with furthering the violent acts of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, ended in December with no guilty verdicts. Hammoudeh, who was acquitted of all charges, was to be quickly deported as part of a plea agreement on a separate case for which he received no jail time. But he remains incarcerated by immigration officials for reasons that are unclear.

For his plea agreement hearing, Al-Arian entered the federal courtroom on the morning of April 14 in an orange prison uniform. He was handcuffed and shackled. He pleaded guilty to one count of the nine deadlocked counts remaining against him: offering "contributions, goods or services" to the PIJ.

Al-Arian told McCoun that he was only pleading guilty to one part of these three possibilities: "I'm pleading to services."

McCoun clarified that "the government doesn't have to prove all - or the other."

"You're conceding the services aspect?" McCoun asked.

"Yes, sir," replied Al-Arian.

With those two words, the 12-year case against Sami Al-Arian, which included 11 years of FBI investigations, wiretaps and searches, three years of trial preparation by federal prosecutors and a six-month trial, finally began to draw to a close.

McCoun pointed out that federal prosecutors had agreed with Moreno that there should be no recommendation of a fine - it could be as much as $250,000 - and that federal prosecutors also agreed with the defense that Al-Arian should be receive the low end of the sentencing guidelines - 46 months.

"Statistically, the best you can hope for is a sentence which would be 85 percent of the term of incarceration," said McCoun.

This means Al-Arian will spend a minimum of 39 months in jail. By his sentencing on May 1, he will have already spent 38 months and two weeks in jail - most of it in solitary confinement.

McCoun told Al-Arian it was not too late to decide to have a second trial on the deadlocked counts, that he could back out of the plea agreement, and get back on the trial calendar.

"On the other hand, if you're satisfied you're guilty or you believe it's in your best interest to plead guilty...let me know that," McCoun said.

"I believe it's in my best interest to enter a plea," said Al-Arian.

McCoun said U.S. District Court Judge James S. Moody had already "indicated his intention to accept the plea," which Moody did, on April 17, when he also made the content of previous secret hearings part of the public record.

Moody scheduled a 30-minute hearing for Al-Arian's May 1 sentencing, which suggests that only four people will be allowed to speak: the judge, a lawyer for each side, and Sami Al-Arian.

McCoun's last words to Al-Arian before sentencing: "Good luck to you, sir."

[Last modified April 24, 2006, 23:38:02]

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