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Five Megahed jurors upset by immigration charges

TAMPA — Five of the federal jurors who acquitted Youssef Megahed of explosives charges are speaking out against a U.S. Immigration decision to arrest him just three days after the verdict.

"It may be 'legal,' but that doesn't make it right," says a statement signed by foreman Gary Meringer and fellow jurors Sandra Cleland, Stephen Short and Brenda Kumpf.

"It strikes us as fundamentally wrong that the government has put Mr. Megahed back in jail for suspicion of the same activities that he was acquitted of in the criminal case."

A fifth juror, John Calder, also expressed concern.

The St. Petersburg Times has been in contact with jurors since Megahed's federal trial ended. Some jurors wanted privacy and declined to be interviewed or publicly express an opinion.

But after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials snatched Megahed from a Wal-Mart parking lot last week and announced that they would try to deport him, a few jurors reconsidered.

They were too angry to remain silent.

They elaborated Wednesday in an exclusive interview with the Times, first published on tampabay.com.

"I was stunned," said Cleland, 66, via conference call from Meringer's Sarasota office.

"I never felt the government had a substantial case," said Short, 38, also on the call.

"It didn't seem fair," said foreman Meringer. "It didn't seem right. I was embarrassed as a citizen for what the government had done."

Meringer, 57, said he was upset enough by the immigration arrest that he contacted Megahed's attorneys to offer help and to ask for updates on his case.

Adam Allen, Megahed's public defender, said he was "heartened" that the jurors were concerned about his client's well-being and "proud" that they had chosen to speak out.

"I'm hopeful that people in authority will listen to these jurors and correct this clear injustice," Allen said.

Megahed remains in the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, waiting to try to convince an immigration judge that he was not in possession of a destructive device when stopped by a South Carolina deputy for speeding.

Twelve jurors acquitted him April 3 of that charge.

Meringer, Cleland and Short say that was the easiest part of their verdict.

"To me that says a lot about what anybody ought to make of the government's case," Meringer said.

Jurors labored longer over whether to also find Megahed not guilty of illegally transporting explosive materials.

They sat through the three-week trial and then spent 21 hours deliberating. Now, they wonder, has the government rendered their not-guilty verdicts moot?

• • •

The straw poll on the first day of deliberations leaned toward a guilty verdict. The real shift occurred between the second and third day, when jurors spent hours examining the mountain of evidence and listing pros and cons on large pieces of paper posted to the walls.

Jurors wondered about the absence of bathing suits and toiletries on what defense attorneys said was a coastal drive to visit beaches. They discussed the purchase of a $300 GPS device on what they were told was a "budget" trip.

"The table was covered with evidence," Cleland said. "Even with 12 people, each one could find something different."

They discussed whether the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Megahed knew there were explosives in the car when a South Carolina deputy pulled him over for speeding, or even if materials found in the car could be considered explosives.

Meringer said he didn't understand why an FBI agent who testified had put so much effort into trying to assemble materials in the trunk into a dangerous device.

"The word 'laughable' comes to mind," Meringer said. "I was sitting there thinking, 'My government is spending my money and our time trying to make a case out of a gasoline can. Why not just stick a fuse in it?' "

They spent much of their time reviewing a transcript of a secretly recorded conversation in Arabic between Megahed and fellow student Ahmed Mohamed in the back of a deputy's cruiser.

Parts of the transcript were incomplete. Jurors doubted the translations by an FBI linguist, who admitted on the stand that some words may have had multiple meanings.

By the end of the third day, the votes swung with a majority in favor of acquittal.

On the fourth day, they asked a judge: Did a guilty verdict require that a defendant be a knowing and willful participant in the crime? What if he merely knew that a crime was being committed?

The judge answered that simply knowing was not enough for a finding of guilt.

Hearing that, another vote was taken.

Twelve hands raised for acquittal.

• • •

For 23-year-old Megahed, the ultimate judgment could be deportation.

He's charged with civil violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

ICE spokesman Ivan Ortiz-Delgado declined to discuss the specifics of Megahed's charges. He would only say Megahed's "immigration violations differ significantly from those charges in his criminal case."

"He will have the opportunity to present the facts of his case before an immigration judge," Oritz-Delgado said.

Immigration court doesn't recognize the concept of "double jeopardy" — which forbids a defendant from being tried twice on the same charge — because immigration court is civil and administrative.

The jurors understand that, but disagree on principle.

"This sure looks and feels like some sort of 'double jeopardy' even if it doesn't precisely fit the legal definition of that prohibited practice," the juror statement says. "More troublesome is the government's seeming blatant disregard of the will of its own people."

Calder thinks Megahed's detention is "disrespectful" to jurors who worked hard to make the decision.

"He's been freed once," Calder said in an interview last week. "He shouldn't be convicted or put through this again. I just hope he gets a good break. I hope he gets out of this."

Said Cleland: "I hope he receives justice."

Times staff writers Colleen Jenkins and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354. Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Five Megahed jurors upset by immigration charges 04/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 20, 2009 10:48am]
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