S.C. deputy called unreliable witness

Attorneys say his words are tainted in students' arrests.

By Kevin Graham, Times Staff Writer
Published February 21, 2008

TAMPA - Attorneys for Youssef Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed on Wednesday attacked the credibility of a South Carolina deputy who they said stopped the men because of their skin color.

"How can the court have any confidence in anything this individual has said?" James W. Smith III, Megahed's public defender, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo.

Berkeley County sheriff's Cpl. James Lamar Blakely testified that he saw Mohamed "glaring" at him in a rearview mirror on Aug. 4 as Blakely traveled behind Mohamed on Highway 176 in Goose Creek, S.C.

Pressed by defense attorneys as to whether he recognized anything about the physical features of the car's occupants, Blakely said they had "tan" skin.

Blakely said he stopped Mohamed and Megahed, both then University of South Florida students, because they were traveling 60 mph in a 45 mph zone.

Soon after the traffic stop, Blakely asked Mohamed to exit the driver's seat, then asked, "What are you doing up here?"

"What are you doing around here means different things to different people," Smith said. "It reflects a mind-set that certain people don't belong in certain areas."

Smith said Blakely had decided to search Megahed and Mohamed's car because "he thought they were terrorists" from the moment he saw them.

Blakely asked if he could take a "look" inside the vehicle, and Mohamed responded, "If you must." Lyann Goudie, Mohamed's attorney, said that response didn't give the deputy permission to perform his search. She said Mohamed's response was his submission to a law officer, not willful consent.

Pizzo spent two days listening to testimony on a defense motion to throw out everything investigators found inside Megahed and Mohamed's car after Blakely searched it. Defense attorneys said Blakely improperly detained the men and never got legal consent to search their car.

The judge plans to review evidence presented in the hearing before making a decision.

Prosecutors said Megahed and Mohamed were traveling with pipes stuffed with fertilizer, Karo syrup and kitty litter; bullets and fuses; and a laptop with Internet searches about martyrdom, Hamas and Qassam rockets.

Both men have been charged with illegally transporting explosive materials. Mohamed faces an additional charge of demonstrating how to make an explosive device. Prosecutors said he admitted posting a video to YouTube where he narrated how to turn a child's remote control toy into a detonator.

Smith attempted to use video from a traffic stop Blakely made before he pulled Megahed and Mohamed over to show the deputy had a habit of stopping cars without a valid reason.

The tape, displayed in court, showed Blakely stopping the driver of a pickup truck the deputy thought had been driving a road known for drug problems. As he walked back to his car, Blakely is heard telling another deputy that he wasn't sure whether the driver was down the road at all. He just wanted to see.

Smith disagrees that Mohamed was speeding. He said that when Blakely first noticed the car, it was in a 55 mph zone.

Berkeley County Deputy Andrew Jack Taylor testified Wednesday that it's acceptable to lie to suspects in order to get information.

Earlier in the day, Taylor apologized for remarks he made about Megahed and Mohamed when he assisted Blakely in the stop. He called them suicide bombers.

"I'm sorry for the comments," Taylor said. "Seeing the two gentlemen in the car, I guess I made the assumption they might have been associated with terrorists."

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or 813 226-3433.