TERRORISM Few suspects face trial by jury
Most arrests end in plea deals rather than actually going to trial.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- The federal case against a Lodi, Calif., father and son accused of ties to Al-Qaida terror training in Pakistan rings familiar to legal scholars who have tracked the Justice Department's pursuit of terrorism convictions since the Sept. 11 attacks.
First come the arrests, alarming allegations and hints of terrorist plots forged in a town near you. Then comes the hard part.
The Bush administration has seen mixed results in prosecuting high-profile terrorism cases since the Sept. 11 attacks. Usually, as with most federal cases, they end in plea deals, often on lesser charges unrelated to terrorism. Or in outright acquittal. Few result in jury trials.
Critics blame overly aggressive tactics in pursuit of terrorists, leading to overblown charges that fall apart. But some legal experts point to another factor: a legal system built on constitutional protections, jury-rigged for a newfound war on terror.
"It's the 'Minority Report' problem," said Syracuse University law professor William Banks, referring to the futuristic film about a team that sees crimes before they happen and busts criminals before they act.
"It's a new frontier for the FBI," said FBI spokeswoman LaRae Quy. "To actually bring these individuals to prosecution in this country, a threshold of evidence needs to be presented, and rightly so. If there is no terrorist attack, maybe there is no evidence. So that makes it very difficult."
The government has claimed success in securing guilty pleas and long prison sentences for seven Muslims from Portland, Ore., accused of trying to join the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks; from six U.S. citizens of Yemeni descent from New York accused of traveling to Afghanistan to train with Al-Qaida. Justice officials also say their aggressive tactics have churned new information.
Other cases have churned embarrassment.
A judge threw out convictions in a highly touted case against suspected members of a Detroit sleeper cell, citing prosecutor misconduct. A jury acquitted an Iowa student on charges he created Web sites to recruit terrorists. Authorities admitted the bad arrest of an Oregon man, wrongly saying his fingerprints were found in a van tied to the deadly Madrid train bombings.
"Unfortunately a lot of the federal government's actions have been to cast guilt in the court of public opinion before the court of law," said Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"Most cases since Sept. 11 have led to minor immigration [violations] or a minimal criminal conviction," Iftikhar said. "Most of the time the charges never come up in regards to terrorism."
Cases related to terrorism fall under several statutes, and no reliable figures exist on the number or outcome of all terrorism-related cases brought since the Sept. 11 attacks. The frequent use of immigration enforcement, rather than criminal charges, adds to the uncertainty.
Hamid Hayat, 22, and his father, Umer Hayat, 47, face charges of lying to federal agents about Hamid's alleged participation in a terrorist camp in Pakistan. Three other men tied to the investigation face immigration violations.