Courtroom defeats for prosecutors don’t come much more embarrassing than the one suffered Tuesday in the Florida terror trial of Sami Al-Arian, who was acquitted on key charges of abetting terrorists. Along with three other defendants, Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor, was charged with helping to lead a Palestinian terrorist group from his home near Tampa. Feds, who'd been eying A-Arian for nearly a decade, finally got their chance to indict him following 9/11 when the Patriot Act allowed all sorts of evidence to be suddenly permissible in court. Al-Arian's case never had anything to do with bin Laden or Saddam, but Bush's Justice Dept., which indicted Al-Arian just one month before the invasion of Iraq, made sure to leave the impression that the crucial terror case would keep America safe.
Anyway, the case turned out to be colossal flop, with the feds presenting a confusing mish-mash of jumbled transcripts and a mountain of circumstantial evidence that, according to press accounts, bored the jury to tears. The prosecution took nearly five months to present its case, which included testimony from nearly 80 witnesses. Finally given a chance to respond, here's what Al-Arian's attorney told the judge:
"On behalf of Dr. Al-Arian, the defense rests."
Al-Arian didn't call a single witness on his behalf. That might have been because prosecutors, who had tapped Al-Arian's phone for years and collected 20,000 hours of conversations, failed to present a single phone call in which violent terrorist acts were plotted. As has become something of a post-9/11 custom, the terror indictments were a lot more convincing than the actual terror trial. (See the Lackawanna Six.) And has also become customary, the network news teams looked the other way.
When then-Attorney General John Ashcroft personally announced the Al-Arian indictment on Feb. 20, 2003, in a press conference carried live on CNN (Ashcroft tagged Al-Arian the North American leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad), the story garnered a wave of excited media attention. ABC's "World News Tonight" led that night's newscast with the Al Arian arrest. Both NBC and CBS also gave the story prominent play that evening. But last night, in the wake of Al-Arian's acquittal, it was a different story. Neither ABC, CBS nor NBC led with the terror case on their evening newscasts. None of them slotted it second or third either. In fact, according to TVEyes, the 24-hour monitor system, none of networks reported the acquittal at all. Raise your hand if you think the nets would have covered the trial's conclusion if the jury had returned with a guilty verdict in what the government had hyped as a centerpiece to its War on Terror.
The story at least received cursory coverage on the cable news channels. CNN's Wolf Blitzer correctly called the verdict "stunning." Over at Fox News, which has been shadowing Al Arian for four years, they put on a brave face. Bill O'Reilly looked glum talking to fellow Al-Arian-hater Steve Emerson, who has spent more than ten years telling anyone who would listen that Al-Arian is a criminal mastermind.
But I wonder what the mood is like inside the Tampa Tribune newsroom, which years ago drove itself off the cliff with its obsessive, breathless and ominous Al-Arian coverage. Actually, 'obsessive' really does not do justice to the Tribune when it comes to Al-Arian. Guess how many articles and columns the paper has published on the topic over the last decade? 100? 200? 300? 400? Keep going. 500? 600? Nope. According to Nexis, the paper has printed more than 700 stories mentioning Sami Al-Arian. That's approximately one dispatch every five days…for ten years running.
The jury on Tuesday announced it was deadlocked on several charges and despite the awkward thumping they took, prosecutors may opt to try Al-Arian again. At least that way the Trib will be able to hit the 1,000 mark . And who knows, if the feds secure an Al-Arian conviction maybe it'll make the network evening news.
UPDATE: As for staging another Al-Arian trial, prosecutors will have to mull over the comments from jurors who overwhelmingly wanted to return a not gulity verdict on all the charges. According to the St. Pete Times: "Most jurors wanted to acquit Sami Al-Arian of the dozens of charges against him. Two jurors, and sometimes three, clung to their belief of his guilt."
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