A federal jury found Sami Al-Arian not guilty on eight charges of terrorism on Tuesday and deadlocked on nine other counts against the former professor.
Mr. Al-Arian, who was fired in 2003 from a tenured post in computer engineering at the University of South Florida, was accused of conspiring with a group called Palestinian Islamic Jihad to incite suicide bombings in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. After five months of trial and 13 days of jury deliberations, he was acquitted on one of the major charges against him: conspiracy to murder and maim abroad.
The verdict was a stunning defeat for the prosecution, which built its case on years of secret surveillance made admissible in court by provisions in the USA Patriot Act. That surveillance included wiretapped telephone calls between Mr. Al-Arian and leaders of Islamic Jihad from the early 1990s, faxes from the Middle East, bank statements, and even a record of Mr. Al-Arian's Internet browsing. However, even prosecutors admitted that their voluminous evidence against Mr. Al-Arian was largely circumstantial.
Mr. Al-Arian's lawyers opted not to present any witnesses in his defense, instead leaving the burden of proof on the prosecution -- a gamble that appeared to have paid off on Tuesday. The defense lawyers argued that the government was seeking to convict Mr. Al-Arian, a prominent Muslim-American intellectual broadly involved with Palestinian issues, of guilt merely by association.
Two of Mr. Al-Arian's co-defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, were acquitted on all charges against them. The fourth co-defendant, Hatem Naji Fariz, was acquitted on 24 counts, and the jury deadlocked on eight counts against him.
Despite the acquittals, the future remains uncertain for Mr. Al-Arian and Mr. Fariz. The government still must decide whether it will retry them on the charges that the jury could not resolve. Mr. Al-Arian was taken back to prison immediately after his verdict was read, but his lawyers may soon file a motion for his release on bail.
"It's a great victory," said William B. Moffitt, one of Mr. Al-Arian's lawyers. "We went to trial with the First Amendment. Can you imagine that? That was our defense. We put on no case."
"What I'm excited about is that people still believe in the First Amendment-- they believe, in these times, only a few years away from 9/11," Mr. Moffitt continued. "That says a great deal about who we are as a people. I feel safer today as a result of what that jury did."
The Department of Justice posted a brief statement on its Web site within hours of the verdict.
"We remain focused on the important task at hand, which is to protect our country through our ongoing vigorous prosecution of terrorism cases," the statement read. "While we respect the jury's verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in court against Sami Al-Arian and his co-defendants. Discussions are ongoing as to whether the government will seek to retry defendants Al-Arian and Hatem Fariz on the outstanding charges."
As the verdict was read aloud in court, count by count, Laila, Abdullah, and Leena Al-Arian, three of the former professor's children, sat in the courtroom, clutching one another's hands and weeping. Sitting several feet in front of them was their father, who also cried as this chapter in his ordeal in the U.S. legal system came to a close.
He locked eyes with his family for a few moments before being led out of the courtroom.
Minutes later, outside, Abdullah was standing in a crush of over a hundred spectators and reporters on the steps of the federal courthouse. "It's insane," he said. "We just want to kind of revel in this moment -- and wait and see what's to come."