TAMPA — The trial of Sami Osmakac, the Kosovo-born U.S. citizen accused of scheming to plant bombs across Tampa, began Tuesday with jury selection.
Security was heightened both outside the courthouse, where officials from the Department of Homeland Security patrolled, and inside, where anyone entering the courtroom had to pass through an additional metal detector.
In the back of the courtroom, screens were set up in preparation for witnesses who will testify anonymously. The first witness in the trial is expected to take the stand today and to testify for four days, his face obscured by the screens and his identity hidden behind a pseudonym.
Osmakac, 27, whose family moved to the United States when he was a teenager and settled in Pinellas Park, was arrested in 2012, after months of being watched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Charged with possessing an unregistered AK-47 and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, he faces life in prison if convicted.
His is the most prominent terrorism case to be heard in Tampa since the 2005 trial of former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, who was charged, along with three other men, of operating the U.S. wing of a Palestinian terrorist group.
Though he had asked to appear in court in Islamic garb, Osmakac did not get his wish. He had requested a white ankle-length robe and a keffiyeh, traditional Arab headgear. But on Tuesday, he walked into court in a white linen suit and nothing on his head but his closely cropped brown hair.
The court wouldn't pay for the clothing he had requested, explained Osmakac's attorney, George Tragos, and his family refused to supply the desired attire.
U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven interviewed 91 potential jurors for the trial, dismissing all but 37 of them by the end of the day. The process will continue this morning, when prosecutors and defense attorneys expect to pick a final group of 18 jurors.
Some of those dismissed were sent home after they protested that the four-week trial would cause financial hardship or lead them to miss out on planned summer vacations. But others said they had larger concerns with Osmakac's behavior, in particular his refusal to stand up when the judge and jury enter the courtroom. Though Scriven told the group that the defendant was within his rights not to follow this custom, some jurors took offense.
"This is America's court, you should abide by the rules," said an older man, who also said that he couldn't be impartial because of his views on terrorism and the people behind such attacks. "I personally feel that America has been too easy on them."
He was excused. So, too, was a woman who witnessed the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, which killed more than 200 people. "I saw all the havoc," she said, admitting that she couldn't be a fair juror in a terrorism case.
Osmakac was an outcast in the Tampa Bay Muslim community. He was kicked out of two mosques and was ultimately reported to the FBI by a Muslim acquaintance, who said he was looking for an al-Qaida flag and talking about planting bombs. According to a federal complaint, his targets were ever-changing.
He talked about blowing up bridges, a county sheriff's building and Ybor City nightclubs. At one point, he had his eye on MacDinton's, an Irish bar in South Tampa. He considered the attacks "payback" for the wrongs done to Muslims, according to an arrest affidavit.
Secretly recorded by an uncover FBI agent, Osmakac met with the man and later bought weapons and a fake bomb from him. No attack took place and prosecutors say he acted alone. In a trial brief, his defense attorneys have suggested that he was entrapped and that he was vulnerable to an outsider's suggestions.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.