An unholy case, flawed from the beginning / Fort Worth Star-Telegram

BY BOB RAY SANDERS, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
October 24, 2007

Thanks to some jurors in a Dallas courtroom who refused to bow to religious bigotry and political pressure, a miscarriage of justice was prevented from running its full, destructive course this week.

After years of investigations, weeks of testimony on 197 charges and 19 days of deliberations, the men and women who heard the case against the Holy Land Foundation and five of its leaders proved what many of us had thought from the very beginning: The government’s case relied purely on innuendo, guilt by association and widespread prejudice.

A mistrial was declared Monday after jurors found some defendants not guilty on most of the charges and were unable to agree on most of the others.

And then, in one of the most confusing moments ever witnessed during the announcement of a verdict, a couple of jurors changed their minds after a four-day delay in having the verdict read in open court. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Considering that President Bush himself had accused the Richardson-based charitable organization of funding terrorism, this was supposed to be a slam-dunk case for the Justice Department.

In December 2001, in announcing that the Treasury Department was seizing the funds of the Holy Land Foundation, the president said that money raised by the group “is used by Hamas to support schools and indoctrinate children to grow up into suicide bombers.”

The attorney general and the secretary of the treasury added their weight to the accusations, and then the full force of the U.S. criminal justice system came down on the foundation and five defendants: Elashi Ghassan, chairman; Mohammed El-Mezain, former chairman; Mufid Abdulqader, fundraiser; Shukri Abu Baker, chief executive; and Abdulrahman Odeh, a New Jersey representative of the organization.

That should have been more than enough to crush these men. Although they saw the disruption of their families and much of their lives, they refused to give in to overreaching prosecution — and of all things, they continued to have faith in the American system of justice.

Because of the mistrial, the five have not been vindicated in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of many others, this case clearly was a defeat for a government that spent millions of dollars trying to paint the defendants as sponsors of international terrorism.

I said years ago that I didn’t believe there was much of a case against these men, but who can guess what will happen when a country is in hysterics about possible terrorist plots and when the nation’s leaders continue to play on that fear?

Except for the crazed McCarthy era and the wholesale internment of Japanese immigrants after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I can’t think of a time in this country when our justice system was so manipulated on the basis of insinuation and unfounded suspicion rooted in prejudice.
Our country is better than that. At least it ought to be.

One juror proclaimed that there was no credible evidence, with the government relying on information dating back 20 years — before Hamas had been declared a terrorist organization by the United States — as well as loads of “secret” documents and anonymous witnesses from Israel.

This case was flawed from the beginning, but it didn’t keep the government from going forward, because it needed some trophies in its war on terrorism. Instead of winning trophies, however, it destroyed a worthwhile organization and ruined many lives.

When the jurors were out so long, despite the number of charges they were considering, I thought this did not bode well for the prosecution.

And when it was announced Thursday that the jury had reached a verdict but that their decision would be sealed until Monday because the judge was out of town, I wondered: So if the men were “not guilty,” they had to wait an extra four days? Four hours, maybe, but four days? That didn’t seem fair.

As a Tarrant County lawyer explained to a Star-Telegram reporter, those four extra days gave some jurors (who were not sequestered, by the way) a chance to rethink their “not guilty” verdicts, and thus some changed their minds when they got to court on Monday morning.

The Justice Department says it will retry the case. You see, prosecutors can’t admit when they’ve made a mistake. And, of course, they still want those trophies.

For the sake of justice, all these charges ought to be dismissed, and these defendants should be given their lives back — allowed to return to families and their communities with no more clouds hanging over them.

As we did after World War II with the Japanese and in the 1950s with Joseph McCarthy, let us at least bring this ugly chapter of American history to an end.

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