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Ex-USF student freed on bail

Youssef Megahed, center, smiles as he walks in downtown Tampa with his attorney Adam Allen, left, who said, “It’s been a very difficult nine months for my client.” Megahed’s release terms carry some stiff restrictions on his movements.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Youssef Megahed, center, smiles as he walks in downtown Tampa with his attorney Adam Allen, left, who said, “It’s been a very difficult nine months for my client.” Megahed’s release terms carry some stiff restrictions on his movements.

TAMPA — After spending nine months behind bars on explosives charges that drew national attention, Youssef Megahed posted $200,000 bail Monday and walked out of the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa.

The former University of South Florida student emerged from court with his smiling parents and siblings and declined to answer questions on his attorney's advice.

"It's been a very difficult nine months for my client. He's glad to be released," said Assistant Federal Public Defender Adam Allen, asking that Megahed's privacy be respected.

Megahed, 22, was scheduled to go to trial on Monday to defend himself against charges of illegally transporting explosive materials and a destructive device stemming from a traffic stop last August in South Carolina.

"We'd rather be selecting a jury today," Allen said.

But a last-minute appeal by prosecutors on Friday, challenging a judge's decision to exclude certain evidence against Megahed, has caused the trial to be delayed indefinitely. U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday warned last week that any delay in the trial could trigger Megahed's release.

When jury selection didn't move forward, Merryday withdrew his order to keep Megahed jailed and referred the issue of bail back to U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Jenkins. Jenkins had been in favor of releasing Megahed on bail back in September, but prosecutors appealed that decision to Merryday. Jenkins moved swiftly Monday to let Megahed out.

"I view the district judge's order as ordering me to release the defendant," Jenkins said.

On Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hoffer said in court that prosecutors no longer had objections to releasing Megahed on certain conditions.

"What changed from September until now?" asked Ahmed Bedier, a Muslim civil rights activist familiar with the case. He said for prosecutors to change their minds about detaining Megahed, after they had fought so hard to keep him in custody, raised questions about the government's case and evidence against him.

The disputed evidence responsible for delaying the trial includes nine video clips recovered by the FBI from Megahed's home computer. They showed rockets launching in combat zones in the Middle East and explosives being used against what appeared to be U.S. military vehicles.

Defense attorneys argued it had nothing to do with the charges against Megahed. They also said the information was inadmissible because prosecutors missed a deadline to disclose such information to the defense.

Merryday sided with the defense. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta must rule on the prosecution's appeal before a new trial date is set.

In issuing her bond order, Jenkins told Megahed that there would be "zero tolerance" for any bail violations.

Of the $200,000 bail, Megahed's family posted half in cash and signed an agreement to give up the rest if Megahed jumps bail. All members of the Megahed household surrendered their passports, and all are prohibited from Internet access at home. Megahed must be monitored by a GPS tracking device. He's allowed to leave home for court hearings, meetings with his attorney and preapproved religious functions.

Megahed had been in custody since an Aug. 4 arrest in Goose Creek, S.C. A sheriff's deputy stopped him and fellow student Ahmed Mohamed, 26, for speeding and searched their car when he became suspicious. In the trunk, he found PVC pipes filled with sugar, potassium nitrate and cat litter.

Mohamed, scheduled for trial in July, explained them as homemade fireworks.

Megahed has denied knowing the materials were in the car.

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

What's next?

No new trial date for Youssef Megahed will be set until the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta rules on prosecutors' appeal of the district judge's order to exclude certain evidence against Megahed. There's no exact time frame for that. In the meantime, Megahed can remain free and live with his family in Tampa Palms.

Ex-USF student freed on bail 05/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2008 2:20pm]
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