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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Words could taint case
An attorney for a USF student says remarks show deputy's bias.
By KEVIN GRAHAM and ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writers
Published December 22, 2007
TAMPA - A deputy stopped a speeding car on a stretch of South Carolina highway in August, got the driver's license and headed to his patrol car.
There, he spoke bluntly to his partner. He called the car's occupants members of the Taliban and "graduates of suicide bomber school." He joked that the men likely carried the Koran.
A camera on the deputy's cruiser captured his words, according to documents filed by a defense attorney Friday in U.S. District Court.
Those offhand remarks may prove costly for the government's case against suspended University of South Florida students Youssef Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed, legal experts say.
"It's not very often you get such a revelation of somebody's racial bias or bigotry," said Eddie Suarez, a Tampa defense attorney. "It's very rare you can get such pinpoint evidence of that. It could be very useful."
Berkeley County Sheriff's Deputy Lamar Blakely's comments taint the entire investigation and should prevent the government from using any evidence gathered during the traffic stop, assistant federal public defender James W. Smith III argued in a motion.
The deputy also questioned Megahed about the car's contents without giving him the Miranda warnings, which would advise Megahed of his rights against self-incrimination, according to the motion. It's unclear from the document at what point in the investigation Megahed was placed in custody and handcuffed.
Megahed's attorneys could not be reached for clarification.
The motion also says the deputies lacked probable cause to stop the car, that the men were not speeding, although the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office report says the car was going 60 mph in a 45 mph zone on U.S. 176.
Smith's motion calls for a judge to toss out physical evidence and statements made by Megahed.
The Aug. 4 traffic stop near Goose Creek, S.C., triggered the criminal case against the pair, accused of carrying explosive materials in the car's trunk.
When federal agents searched the car they found pipes stuffed with fertilizer, Karo syrup and kitty litter; bullets and fuses; a laptop with Internet searches about martyrdom, Hamas and Qassam rockets; and video instructions for turning a child's toy into a detonator.
Explosives experts categorized the items in the trunk as incomplete pipe bombs.
"Shockingly, on the video, Deputy Blakely even expresses concern over the fact that his ethically-inappropriate remarks were being recorded by his in-vehicle video recorder," Smith wrote.
"These and other inappropriate, ethnically-stereotyping comments occurred prior to the search and discovery of any items in the vehicle and shockingly illustrate that Deputy Blakely's decision to search the vehicle was not based on reasonable suspicion of unlawful acts, but upon nothing more than his own biased, unlawful racial profiling."
Blakely told the St. Petersburg Times that he did nothing wrong.
"I think everything was handled perfectly, well, not perfectly, but in accordance to our policy and procedure," Blakely said. "I think the way that it was done was the way we would do any other traffic stop."
Blakely, 30, grew up in Berkeley County, went to school there and became a dispatcher and a detention deputy before joining the Sheriff's Office.
In August, he was working as part of the sheriff's enforcement team focusing on high-crime areas, he said. His assignment is still the same, he said.
When read the allegations about making racist remarks, he referred a reporter to his supervisor, saying, "Basically, it's pertaining to this case, so I don't want to say anything about that."
Asked if his patrol car had a video recorder, he said only that he knew "some of our vehicles have video capabilities."
His supervisor did not return a call for comments.
The spokesman for a bay area Muslim advocacy group found the allegations against Blakely "disturbing."
"Somebody screwed up here and it may be costly," said Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Tampa office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It will raise doubt about how this investigation was triggered."
The Federal Public Defender's Office represents Megahed, 21, who remains in a Hillsborough County jail, as does co-defendant Mohamed, 26. They're scheduled to go to trial as early as March.
John Fitzgibbons, Mohamed's attorney, said Friday that he had yet to read through the motion.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
Legal experts say the deputies' actions could jeopardize the law officers' credibility.
"If the officers said those things then it could certainly impact the testimony they could give, because it could show the bias of the officers," said George Tragos, a Clearwater defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.
It will be crucial to have a time line, to know precisely when Megahed gave statements to officers and whether he was speaking openly or in custody, said Charles Rose, a Stetson University College of Law professor.
"These are the sorts of cases, historically, that once you begin to unpeel the onion, if you can get the judge to look at and question it, it often does not end up well for the government," he said.
Any defense victory on this motion could mean the government's case is weak, Rose said.
Mohamed, who was driving, had a valid license and there was no warrant for either of their arrests. The car was also properly registered, Smith said.
"Once Deputy Blakely conducted his records check and had all the information he needed to issue a traffic citation, the traffic investigation was over and the vehicle and its occupants should have been free to leave," Smith wrote.
Instead, the men were ordered out of the car. They consented to a search and were placed in handcuffs when deputies found a box of bullets beneath a seat.
Megahed was questioned about the contents of the car without being read Miranda warnings, Smith said.
"Such questioning by Deputy Blakely was illegal," Smith wrote.
The men told the deputies they were on a trip to see the beaches of South Carolina and had fireworks in their trunk.
"Despite this benign explanation, for some unknown reason, Deputy Blakely was unsatisfied with the response and continued to question Mr. Mohamed in a very aggressive and detailed manner," Smith wrote. "A viewing of the video tape makes it clear that nothing in the responses given by Mr. Mohamed or Mr. Megahed would lead a reasonable law enforcement officer to conclude that any illegal activity was taking place."
Times staff writer Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3433.