After five months of telling jurors that Sami Al-Arian is a terrorist, federal prosecutors here wrapped up their closing arguments on Tuesday, alleging -- as they have all along -- that the former professor has more in common with the dons of organized crime than with those of the ivory tower.
Cherie Krigsman, the prosecutor who delivered the closing argument, compared Mr. Al-Arian to Tony Soprano, the television mob boss, and likened Mr. Al-Arian's academic career to the waste-disposal business that the TV character established as a front for his mafia enterprise.
Mr. Al-Arian, who was fired in 2003 from his post as a tenured professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida, is charged with four counts of conspiracy -- conspiracy to engage in racketeering, conspiracy to murder and maim abroad, conspiracy to provide material support to a designated terrorist group, and conspiracy to engage in illegal transactions with a terrorist group.
The group at issue in the case is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an organization that has been designated as a terrorist entity by the United States since 1995.
Mr. Al-Arian is being tried along with three codefendants. All four have pleaded not guilty.
While Mr. Al-Arian's lawyers do not deny that he was associated with leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, they contend that his only common cause with them was a shared political opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, along with a commitment to give charitable support to people there.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for hundreds of deaths in Israel, Palestine, and the Gaza Strip.
Ms. Krigsman began her closing arguments by playing video footage taken just after the group claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a bus that killed eight people outside Kfar Darom, in the West Bank, in 1995. In shaky, static-streaked images, the video showed a charred bus hull, an elderly woman sitting on the ground with blood soaked through her white hair, and what appeared to be a dead body in green fatigues and combat boots lying on the ground.
Among the dead was a young American woman, Alisa Flatow. Ms. Flatow "got in the way of the PIJ that day," Ms. Krigsman said. "Hot metal shrapnel, propelled at blinding speed, murdered her."
According to the prosecution, Mr. Al-Arian conspired to assist such attacks such attacks by boasting about them to potential donors, by giving money to the widows and orphans of suicide bombers, by speaking with the leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and by raising money for the group.
"Conspiracy is nothing more than an agreement," Ms. Krigsman said, "an agreement to get together and commit a crime. It just means a meeting of the minds."
"We prove it," she went on, "like we prove a party's intent -- with circumstantial evidence."
Indeed, the prosecution's case is built on a mountain of circumstantial evidence. Ms. Krigsman said many elements of Mr. Al-Arian's behavior raise red flags.
"If you are an innocent donor or fund raiser, you don't try to cover your tracks," said Ms. Krigsman, referring to the secrecy with which Mr. Al-Arian and his codefendants conducted many of their affairs (The Chronicle, July 29). "If you're an innocent fund raiser or donor, you don't use codes."
Ms. Krigsman also defense lawyers' arguments that no evidence shows that Mr. Al-Arian had any hand in planning specific attacks, or that he even knew about them before they happened.
"This is just another one of those red herrings," Ms. Krigsman said, "another defense by deflection."
Parsing the difference between conspiracy and mere association -- and the difference between red flags and red herrings -- is perhaps the greatest task set before the jury.
A central element in the prosecution's case is a letter Mr. Al-Arian wrote to a potential financial backer in Kuwait named Isma'il Al-Shatti following a January, 1995, suicide bombing in Beit Lid, Israel. The letter asked Mr. Al-Shatti to raise money for the widows and orphans of suicide bombers "so that operations such as these can continue" -- an apparent reference to the attack (The Chronicle, August 12).
Regarding the letter, Mr. Al-Arian's lawyers have been adamant about one fact: It was never put in the mail, and therefore never reached its Kuwaiti addressee. Because of that, they hold that the letter was not an incitement to violence, but a private thought. Nonetheless, Ms. Krigsman told the jury on Tuesday that the letter proves Mr. Al-Arian's intentions.
In closing, Ms. Krigsman told the jury what she thought what the case was not about. "You should know that your verdict will not be a referendum on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," Ms. Krigsman said, adding that "there are no exceptions in the law for murder" committed in the context of a political conflict.
She then said, "This is also not about the First Amendment. The First Amendment does not provide a shield for covert terrorists."
Those last remarks apparently were meant to anticipate the closing arguments of the defense, which has repeatedly asserted that Mr. Al-Arian has been persecuted because of his beliefs. Mr. Al-Arian's lawyers, who called no witnesses in the professor's defense, are expected to conclude their closing arguments today.