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Megahed trial about to go to jury

TAMPA — On the last day of testimony in the trial of a former college student accused of transporting explosives, jurors heard about the browsing history on the defendant's desktop computer.

Someone had looked at Web sites about explosives, while using the Windows log-in "Usef."

Federal prosecutors think that was Youssef Megahed, the 23-year-old former University of South Florida student whose federal case may go to the jury today. But Megahed's attorneys want jurors to remember that anyone could have signed on under his profile, which did not require a password.

The cyberspace trips were recreated Monday by an FBI computer forensics coordinator who studied the eMachine desktop computer seized from Megahed after his Aug. 4, 2007, arrest.

By questioning the FBI agent, prosecutor Jay Hoffer showed jurors images of several Wikipedia sites that were researched on Megahed's computer, including pages about nitroglycerine, potassium nitrate and al-Quds rockets.

Assistant federal public defender Dionja Dyer countered that the Web sites were just a few of tens of thousands of pages viewed on that computer.

The sites in question were accessed for mere seconds after one page click led to another.

Megahed, an Egyptian national, is accused of the illegal transportation of explosive materials and a destructive device.

He and USF classmate Ahmed Mohamed were stopped for speeding in Goose Creek, S.C., in 2007.

In the trunk, authorities found PVC pipes stuffed with fertilizer, Karo syrup, kitty litter and fuses.

Mohamed pleaded guilty in December to providing material support to terrorists and was sentenced to a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Megahed denied knowing what was in the trunk.

His trial, which began two weeks ago, has pitted a sugar rocket enthusiast against an FBI chemist and federal explosives experts, who studied the trunk's contents and compared them with hobby rockets, fireworks and destructive devices.

Jurors also heard from DNA and fingerprint experts, but they weren't allowed to watch a 44-minute video of Qassam rockets launching in the Middle East. Prosecutors hoped to show it, but a judge ruled it out.

Prosecutors think Megahed likely watched the video on Mohamed's laptop just before their arrest, suggesting he knew what was in the trunk.

Megahed never took the stand.

If he had an explanation for the Internet surfing, jurors never heard it. They were left to draw their own conclusions.

FBI computer forensics coordinator Timothy Pivnichny analyzed 16 months of the stored Internet history on Megahed's computer. He explained how visits to some Web pages led to others.

One search queried Wikipedia about the legal status of AK-47s. Then came a click on the Gun Control Act of 1968 through a hyperlink on the page.

Click, and there was Robert Kennedy. Click again, federal firearms license. A few more clicks and the surfer was studying the Columbine High School killers.

In another instance, the computer user asked Wikipedia about a cougar. A couple clicks later, he was at a page about the Mercury Cougar.

Within a few clicks, he was at a page about incendiary devices.

In most cases, he didn't stop but clicked through to random sites. Dyer pointed out that the user accessed sites related to explosives for less than a minute and sometimes for as little as six seconds.

But it takes only four seconds to press print, Pivnichny said. The computer expert couldn't say whether that happened.

Closing arguments begin today.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Megahed trial about to go to jury 03/30/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 12:19am]
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