Federal public defender may represent Megahed

By KEVIN GRAHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published September 12, 2007

TAMPA - A federal public defender may represent one of the suspended University of South Florida students in jail on explosives charges, leaving the other to hire a private attorney for what some lawyers say will be a costly legal fight.

Youssef Megahed has asked for a federal public defender to take his case, said Andy Savage, the Charleston, S.C., attorney who currently represents him.

"We're in transition right now," Savage said Tuesday. "We're in contact with the federal public defender. They have to interview Youssef and see whether or not he fits the criteria. But that's likely the direction."

A judge will review Megahed's request, considering his personal income, before deciding whether to appoint a public defender. If that happens, it would be a conflict for the public defender's office to represent both students.

The court could then turn to a list of private lawyers who are available to take Ahmed Mohamed's case if he also requests a public defender. He also has the option of hiring his own attorney, if he can afford it.

The Egyptian embassy is helping Mohamed search for a new attorney and will pay for part of his legal fees, said embassy spokesman Karim Haggag. An embassy representative also visited the men in jail in Moncks Corner, S.C., before their transfer to Tampa.

Megahed, 21, and Mohamed, 26, remain in solitary confinement at a Hillsborough County jail, but are scheduled for a bail hearing on Friday.

Local lawyers familiar with the case say the attorneys chosen to defend the students can expect to spend a lot of money and time preparing for court.

"There's no question that this will be a very expensive fight," said attorney Eddie Suarez. "The amount of time that is going to be spent in preparing, researching the law, interviewing the witnesses and examining the evidence is inordinate. This will be a very, very expensive case."

Though they aren't involved in the case, several criminal defense attorneys around Tampa have read the indictment against the students. Most agree that having experts to dissect the explosives charge will be key.

"You always want an expert that will have the best credentials that you can get," Suarez said. "The more respect they have, the more published they are, the better the likelihood their opinion will sway a jury."

Attorney Ron Cacciatore said finding the right expert could be a big ticket item for the defense.

"Experts don't come cheap," he said. Cacciatore pointed to federal tax fraud cases, where he said a defense can spend $500,000 on experts alone.

"Unless you're made of money, it's pretty tough to defend yourself," Cacciatore said.

A federal judge has ordered that an Arabic translator attend court proceedings to interpret for Mohamed. If Mohamed has to hire an attorney, a translator could be an extra cost for his lawyer during private meetings.

"Those people don't grow on trees," said attorney Brian Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said they usually charge by the hour, and could also be required if evidence like recorded phone calls or other correspondence has to be translated.

"We're not talking about years and years of sensitive documents," Gonzalez said, referring to the terrorism-related trial of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian. But "someone would have to pour in hundreds of hours in preparing this case."

Linda Moreno, who represented Al-Arian at his federal trial, said that beyond the costs, relaying the context of the case to a jury will be important for the defense.

"The government likes to operate these cases in a vacuum," she said. "The attorney needs to give the jury the fair and honest picture of the totality of circumstances."

While planning the defense, Moreno said, it could be helpful to go to Egypt, where both students were born.

"A good defense lawyer in these kinds of cases is going to investigate every possible, potential area of defense," Moreno said. "One might want to travel to the Middle East to determine what people have to say about the particular young men."

Kevin Beck, a former federal public defender, said the government "spared no expense" when he worked on a team that represented Hatem Fariz, one of Al-Arian's co-defendants.

"The federal defender in the federal defender's office spent untold hundreds of thousands of dollars in personnel to prepare for that case," Beck said.

Several attorneys, an investigator and paralegals worked full time on Fariz's defense, Beck said. Lawyers with that team traveled to Israel, Jordan and Egypt to look for witnesses, he said.

"In our instance, we had gentlemen who were also accused of conspiring to commit murder," Beck said.

The students face a less serious charge of transporting explosives.

During the trial of Al-Arian and his co-defendants, public defenders had to familiarize themselves with cultural, historical and political information, Beck said. "That may or may not be every bit as important in this case," he said.

Staff writer Abbie VanSickle contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.