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Key ruling in Megahed trial put off

TAMPA — Whether prosecutors can show a 40-minute video of Qassam rockets launching in the Middle East remained in limbo Wednesday as a federal explosives trial got under way for former University of South Florida student Youssef Megahed.

Prosecutors say Megahed likely watched the video on a friend's laptop computer shortly before an August 2007 traffic stop that led to his arrest.

The video was on the laptop of Ahmed Mohamed, who was driving the car stopped by a South Carolina deputy for speeding. Megahed was the passenger.

Berkeley County sheriff's Cpl. James Lamar Blakely saw Megahed unplug laptop wires, grew suspicious and searched the car. Deputies found low-grade explosive materials in the trunk.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hoffer wants to show jurors the video to bolster claims that Megahed knew what was in the trunk because he had an interest in rockets that used a similar potassium nitrate propellant.

The defense says it's prejudicial and has no bearing on the charges of illegal transport of explosive material and illegal possession of a destructive device.

U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday wants to hear evidence before ruling. He also reserved ruling on allowing evidence of a 3 a.m. trip to an Ocala Wal-Mart the day of Megahed's arrest when he asked about buying rifles.

During opening statements, Hoffer cited the legal definition of an explosive and a destructive device. The material recovered from the car trunk — fuses along with pipes stuffed with fertilizer, Karo syrup and kitty litter — meet that definition, he said.

He described suspicious behavior by Megahed and Mohamed while they were followed in Goose Creek, S.C., by Blakely, who later testified about the traffic stop. Hoffer told jurors they will hear a secretly recorded conversation between Megahed and Mohamed, who tried to "get their story straight."

Defense attorney Adam Allen called it nothing more than "an innocent weekend college road trip." Megahed was one class short of an engineering degree from USF, and planned to be a civil engineer like his father, Allen said.

The items in the trunk "are no more harmful than a road flare," Allen said. Mohamed learned how to make model rockets, bought materials, and was the only person who knew they were in the trunk, he said.

DNA extracted from a hair found in the mixture excluded Megahed but not Mohamed, and Megahed's fingerprints were not on any materials used to make the model rockets, he said.

Mohamed had also told investigators that Megahed didn't know the model rockets were in the car, Allen said.

He asked jurors to judge Megahed by his actions, not his skin color, nationality (both Megahed and Mohamed are Egyptian nationals) or associates.

Key ruling in Megahed trial put off 03/18/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 11:55pm]
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