NEW YORK — The first Guantanamo detainee to face a civilian trial was acquitted Wednesday of all but one of the hundreds of charges that he helped unleash death and destruction on two U.S. embassies in 1998 — a mixed result for what has been viewed as a terror test case.
A federal jury convicted Ahmed Ghailani of one count of conspiracy to destroy U.S. property and acquitted him on more than 280 other counts, including one murder count for each of the 224 people killed in the embassy bombings. The anonymous jurors deliberated over seven days.
Ghailani, 36, rubbed his face, smiled and hugged his lawyers after the jurors filed out of the courtroom.
The case has been seen as a test of President Barack Obama's goal of trying detainees in federal court whenever feasible, and the result may again fuel debate over whether civilian courts are appropriate for trying terror suspects.
Because of the unusual circumstances of Ghailani's case — after he was captured in Pakistan in 2004, he was held for nearly five years in a so-called black site run by the Central Intelligence Agency and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — the prosecution faced significant legal hurdles even getting his case to trial.
On the eve of trial last month, the government lost a key ruling that may have seriously damaged its chances of winning convictions.
In the ruling, the judge, Lewis A. Kaplan of Federal District Court in Manhattan, barred them from using an important witness against Ghailani because the government had learned about the man through Ghailani's interrogation while he was in C.I.A. custody, where his lawyers say he was tortured.
The witness, Hussein Abebe, would have testified that he sold Ghailani the TNT used to blow up the embassy in Dar es Salaam, prosecutors told the judge, calling him "a giant witness for the government."
The judge himself recognized the potential damage of excluding the witness when he said in his ruling that Ghailani's status of "enemy combatant" probably would permit his detention as something akin "to a prisoner of war until hostilities between the United States and al-Qaida and the Taliban end, even if he were found not guilty."
On Wednesday, Judge Kaplan thanked the jury, saying the outcome showed that justice "can be rendered calmly, deliberately and fairly by ordinary people — people who are not beholden to any government, even this one."
In a statement, Department of Justice spokesman Matthew Miller said U.S. officials "respect the jury's verdict" and are "pleased" that Ghailani faces a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life in prison at sentencing on Jan. 25.
Defense attorney Peter Quijano said the one conviction would be appealed.
Prosecutors branded Ghailani a cold-blooded terrorist. The defense portrayed him as a clueless errand boy, exploited by senior al-Qaida operatives and framed by evidence from contaminated crime scenes.
The unexpected verdict by the anonymous six-man, six-woman jury came in the fifth day of deliberations. On Monday, the prospect of a deadlock was raised when a juror asked to be removed because she was alone in her view of the case and felt she was being attacked by other jurors.
Prosecutors had alleged Ghailani helped an al-Qaida cell buy a truck and components for explosives used in a suicide bombing in his native Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998. The attack in Dar es Salaam and a nearly simultaneous bombing in Nairobi, Kenya, killed 12 Americans.
The day before the bombings, Ghailani boarded a one-way flight to Pakistan under an alias, prosecutors said. While on the run, he spent time in Afghanistan as a cook and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and later as a document forger for al-Qaida, authorities said.
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.