TAMPA — An entire school year has passed since two University of South Florida students set off on a road trip to South Carolina and returned accused of federal crimes.
Authorities say Youssef Megahed, 22, and Ahmed Mohamed, 26, broke the law by transporting explosive materials across state lines on Aug. 4. What began as a traffic stop led to both men being detained for the past nine months, as an ongoing FBI investigation revealed alleged links to terrorism in Mohamed's case.
While Mohamed's attorneys prepare to defend him at trial in July, Megahed is scheduled to go to trial today to test the government's evidence against him. But a last-minute appeal on Friday by prosecutors challenging U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday's decision to exclude certain evidence may cause a delay.
The judge has indicated that if the trial doesn't begin today, he will reconsider his decision to hold Megahed in custody and release him on bail.
Meanwhile, Adam Allen, Megahed's public defender, said he's ready for trial and ready to prove the government wrong.
"We look forward to the process to run its appropriate course, and we look forward to justice being served," Allen said.
Megahed is charged with illegally transporting explosive materials and illegal possession of a destructive device. A Berkeley County, S.C., deputy searched Megahed and Mohamed's car after he became suspicious during a traffic stop in Goose Creek, S.C. Prosecutors said the officer found four pieces of PVC pipe filled with sugar, potassium nitrate and cat litter in the car's trunk. Investigators described it as a low-grade explosive mixture.
Safety fuses and an electric drill were also in the trunk. Prosecutors have argued that the items could be readily assembled into a destructive device.
Megahed has denied any knowledge of the trunk's contents, though the vehicle used for the trip belonged to his older brother, Yahia. Mohamed explained that they were homemade sugar rockets, or fireworks, which he had become fascinated with after the Fourth of July.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hoffer said FBI testing of the PVC pipes' contents prove it wasn't a harmless mixture.
Allen plans to use video at trial of a defense expert who tested the mixture using an identical procedure as the FBI. When ignited, the mixture expels smoke, burns or does nothing at all, Allen said.
"Our defense (at trial) will be no different than what we've been saying from the beginning, which is that my client had no knowledge that Mr. Mohamed had brought these relatively harmless PVC pipe model rocket propellants with him on this trip," Allen said, "and that these items are neither explosive material or an explosive device."
Local legal experts familiar with the case say the trial could turn into a battle of defense and prosecution explosives experts.
"It's interesting that a case like this is going to be an expert witness case," said Charles Rose, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law.
Rose said the prosecution may argue about the defendant's intent regarding the materials. But prosecutors have offered no evidence on what they say the men planned to do.
"This case sounds to me more and more like a couple of college students being stupid," Rose said. "But sometimes, being stupid can be a criminal act."
Both Egyptian nationals, Megahed and Mohamed met at USF, where they were both engineering students.
Mohamed arrived in the United States on a student visa about six months before his arrest. Megahed is a legal resident who has lived in this country for nearly a decade.
If convicted, Megahed is facing 10 to 16 months in prison.
Local Muslim civil rights leader Ahmed Bedier said one of the most important parts of the trial will be picking a jury, one that "can deliver a fair and impartial verdict and be able to not allow their own preconceived notions about Arabs and Muslims."
Bedier pointed to comments made by Cpl. James Lamar Blakely, the South Carolina deputy who stopped the men. A camera mounted on the deputy's cruiser captured him referring to Megahed and Mohamed as members of the Taliban and "graduates of suicide bomber school."
The defense challenged the legality of Blakely's stop, saying that he had no radar when he pulled the car for speeding, and questioned his motives based on his comments. A judge ruled that the stop was legal.
"The jury may or may not see the bias involved from the police," Bedier said. But "we have faith in the justice system that justice will be served."
Former federal prosecutor George Tragos has been watching developments in the case. He said the implications of terrorism surrounding the case may weigh on the jury. Megahed's charges have nothing to do with terrorism, but prosecutors have accused Mohamed of providing material support to terrorists.
"Terrorism is going to be the 800-pound gorilla in the courtroom," Tragos said. "Everybody's going to know it's there, but nobody's going to want to talk about it."
Because of the more serious and unrelated charges against Mohamed, a judge agreed to sever his trial from Megahed's.
Attorney Brian Gonzalez said that benefits Megahed, because otherwise evidence against one defendant often "trickles down to another co-defendant, especially if they are the same race and religion and beliefs. … Human nature sometimes allows you or wants you to place two people in the same circumstances even though they may not be."
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney John Lauro said he doesn't think the prosecution's appeal of the judge's decision to exclude video clips taken from Megahed's computer would delay the trial.
The clips show rockets launching in combat zones in the Middle East and explosives being used against what appear to be U.S. military vehicles.
"I would suspect that appeal would not go very far," Lauro said. "The judge has a great deal of discretion in exclusionary issues."
Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.