The U.S. Justice Department suffered a major setback in another high-profile terrorist prosecution Monday when its criminal case against five former officials of a now-defunct Islamic charity collapsed into a tangle of legal confusion.
U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish declared a mistrial, but not before it became clear that the government's landmark terrorism finance case -- and one of its most-costly post-9/11 prosecutions -- was in serious trouble.
His decision came after jury verdicts were read to a packed courtroom indicating that none of the defendants had been found guilty on any of the 200 combined counts against them. Jurors had acquitted defendants on some counts and were deadlocked on charges ranging from tax violations to providing material support for terrorists.
However, during routine polling of the jurors to determine that their votes were accurately reflected in the findings, two said they were not. When efforts to reconcile the surprise conflict failed, Fish declared the mistrial.
The case presented to a Texas jury of eight women and four men relied heavily on Israeli intelligence and involved disputed documents and electronic surveillance gathered by federal agents over a span of nearly 15 years. Fish's order ended a two-month trial and 19 days of jury deliberations over allegations that Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and five of its former leaders provided financial aid to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
President Bush announced in December 2001 that the Texas-based charity's assets were being seized, and in a Rose Garden news conference accused the organization of financing terrorism. Monday's outcome, however, raised serious questions about those allegations as well.
"I think it is a huge defeat for the government," said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor specializing in 1st Amendment cases and terrorism prosecutions.
"They spent almost 15 years investigating this group, seized all their records and had extensive wiretapping and yet could not obtain a single conviction on charges of supporting a terrorist organization."
According to one juror interviewed Monday afternoon, the panel was evenly split on most of the disputed charges and not close to convicting anyone.
Juror William Neal, 33, who said his father worked in military intelligence, said that the government's case had "so many gaps" that he regarded the prosecution as "a waste of time."
It was unclear Monday whether the government would seek to retry all five defendants, but supporters viewed the outcome as vindication.
"My father was singled out for feeding, clothing and educating the children of Palestine," said Noor Elashi, the 21-year-old daughter of defendant Ghassan Elashi, Holy Land's former chairman. "I am the daughter of an American hero," she said.
This is a story that will be viewed differently depending on whether you are wearing right-tinted or left-tinted goggles. Rightwingers will see a travesty in which terrorists are being allowed to go free and they will blame the U.S. Justice system and claim that it just proves how we can’t fight terrorism in the courts.
Those on the left will also see a travesty, but one in which an innocent and peaceful charity organization was persecuted and villified by a reactionary Bush Justice Department desperately looking for a scapegoat’s scalp to hang on its belt.