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Ex-USF student gets break from co-defendant's plea deal

TAMPA — The plea deal reached last week for Ahmed Mohamed on a terrorism charge surprised many who expected his case to go to trial.

But the bigger surprise may be that the agreement does not require the former University of South Florida student to testify against co-defendant Youssef Megahed, attorneys familiar with the case said Monday.

"The most important point is what's missing, and the main thing missing is any suggestion that Megahed is guilty," said attorney Rochelle Reback, who is unconnected to the case but read Mohamed's plea agreement.

"It suggests very strongly that the government has major proof issues in their case against Megahed."

Mohamed, 26, signed an agreement Friday to plead guilty to a federal charge of providing material support to terrorists. The accusations stemmed from a YouTube video that prosecutors said Mohamed posted online and intended to aid attempts by terrorists to murder employees of the United States, including military personnel.

He is scheduled to enter his guilty plea Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo.

Adam Allen, Megahed's public defender, said Monday that a federal plea agreement rarely, if ever, omits the requirement for a defendant to cooperate with prosecutors. "I've never seen that," Allen said.

The agreement also leaves out a clause that says prosecutors would consider asking a judge for the low end of a sentencing guideline range, which is often done in cases where defendants accept responsibility and cooperate.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said the plea agreement speaks for itself and declined further comment.

Prosecutors have agreed to drop six other charges against Mohamed, including counts for illegally transporting explosive material and possessing an unregistered destructive device.

Those are the only two charges against Megahed, 22, who is scheduled to have a separate trial pending the outcome of a government appeal over a judge's ruling to toss out evidence against him.

Megahed and Mohamed were stopped for speeding Aug. 4 as they traveled through Goose Creek, S.C. They were arrested on explosives charges after a deputy became suspicious, searched their car and found what investigators said were materials for low-grade explosives in the trunk.

Allen said he's hopeful that Mohamed's guilty plea will prompt prosecutors to re-evaluate their case against Megahed and drop his charges.

Mohamed told authorities that Megahed knew nothing of the materials in the trunk, which Mohamed described as homemade fireworks.

"From Day 1, Mr. Mohamed has been advising law enforcement that my client had no involvement in any of this illegal activity," Allen said.

If Mohamed does provide evidence against Megahed, Allen said it would be contrary to what he has said all along.

Attorney George Tragos, a former federal prosecutor, said the government could force Mohamed to testify before a grand jury if it thought he had relevant information.

Tragos said Mohamed may have waived his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by signing the plea deal.

Attorney Kevin Beck, a former federal public defender, said he wonders why prosecutors allowed Mohamed to avoid taking responsibility for the explosives charges. But he has a theory.

"There is significant evidence that supports the idea that those items were not readily convertible (into an explosive), nor were they destructive devices," Beck said.

"It may be that they were hoeing a pretty long row in order to obtain a conviction there."

If Megahed goes to trial, Allen has said he intends to introduce evidence that the materials found in the trunk were harmless, and when ignited, they expelled smoke, burned or did nothing at all.

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

Ex-USF student gets break from co-defendant's plea deal 06/16/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 2:30pm]

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