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Jurors acquit former USF student Youssef Megahed of both counts in explosives trial

Youssef Megahed, 23, center, stands on the steps of the federal courthouse in Tampa as a free man, surrounded by his family and attorneys. A jury found him not guilty of explosives charges stemming from an arrest in South Carolina.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Youssef Megahed, 23, center, stands on the steps of the federal courthouse in Tampa as a free man, surrounded by his family and attorneys. A jury found him not guilty of explosives charges stemming from an arrest in South Carolina.

TAMPA — Twenty months after a traffic stop in Goose Creek, S.C., catapulted two University of South Florida students into a federal explosives case that raised the specter of terrorism, one of those students has been set free by a panel of 12 jurors.

Youssef Megahed, 23, is not guilty, the jury said Friday.

Not guilty of illegally transporting explosives materials.

Not guilty of possessing a destructive device.

"I'm very happy," he said, grinning, at the Sam Gibbons Federal Courthouse in downtown Tampa, surrounded by his family.

The trial took three weeks and nearly 21 hours of deliberations. Had Megahed been convicted, each count would have carried a 10-year maximum sentence.

Fellow student Ahmed Mohamed drew a 15-year prison sentence in a plea deal with prosecutors in December.

The evidence against Mohamed was more incriminating. Authorities saw him demonstrating how to turn a toy remote into a detonator on YouTube.

The two were arrested in Goose Creek after a stop for speeding led authorities to the car trunk, where they found PVC pipes stuffed with a potassium nitrate and sugar mixture.

Twenty months later, a buzzer sounded at 3:40 p.m. inside U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday's courtroom, signaling that the jury had reached a verdict.

Before it was announced, public defender Adam Allen grabbed Megahed's right shoulder and asked if he was okay.

"Yes," Megahed said, nodding, both hands in his pockets.

When jurors entered the room, he put his fingertips on the table and listened to the verdicts, showing little emotion.

Not guilty, came the first. Not guilty, came the second.

His mother, Ahlam Megahed, held her hands to her face. His sister Mariam cried.

"As the lawyers say, you may go hence without day," Judge Merryday said, his words signaling that Megahed would have no more days in court on the matter.

His father, Samir Megahed, sat stoically at first.

Then the words spilled out.

"We feel comfort and happiness for our son and we'd like to appreciate the judge and the public defender. I want to offer my thanks to the jury, and they are chosen from American people, and they decided to let my son go free, innocent from this charge. I thank every person who joined us in this trouble," the father said.

He hugged his son and approached attorney Allen, hugging him for a full minute while sobbing into his shoulder.

The father shook the hands of the entire prosecution team and said thank you. He shook the hands of the FBI agents in the room, catching a few off guard.

"We respect the jury's verdict when we prevail in a case and we respect a jury's verdict when we do not," one of the prosecutors, Robert Monk, said afterward.

The jury came within two votes of convicting Megahed.

Views shifted, and in the end, jurors did an about-face.

"Mohamed was the instigator with his young protege," said John Calder, the only juror to side with Megahed in the panel's first vote.

Megahed, whose family is originally from Egypt but now lives in Tampa, is a permanent resident of the United States. They came to the United States from Egypt 11 years ago.

Defense attorney Allen had worried that jurors would be influenced by his client's Middle Eastern heritage.

He woke up at 4 a.m. on Tuesday, the day of closing arguments, and decided to address Megahed's heritage directly.

"In every case, you have to address these things that are going through the minds of the jury," he said.

As the case unfolded, Allen sometimes worried about its twists and turns.

But Megahed always seemed calm and at peace, Allen said, often assuring his attorneys, "It'll be okay."

All along, Megahed had maintained that he didn't know the PVC pipes were in the trunk. His fingerprints weren't on them. He and Mohamed were just on a college road trip, he said.

The term "explosives" was roundly debated by experts on both sides, who disagreed over whether the pipes fit the term.

The jury chose as its foreman Gary Meringer, a corporate and securities attorney from Sarasota. Several times, the jurors sent questions to the judge. The final one came Friday at 11:55 a.m., when they asked Merryday to clarify what constitutes guilt.

Did a guilty verdict require a finding that a defendant was a knowing and willful participant of the crime? Or is a finding of knowledge that a crime was being committed sufficient?

Merryday responded: A person must act knowingly to the two counts in question. A person may also commit a crime if they aid and abet someone committing a crime. But the aider and abetter must knowingly and willfully participate with the crime.

Simply knowing about a crime is not enough, he said.

At day's end, it was Samir Megahed who wanted Merryday's attention. He would not leave the courtroom until he had spoken to the judge.

Merryday came out of his chambers.

"Can I shake your hand?" the father asked.

"Yeah, sure," the judge said. "This has been a hard time for you."

"This has not been a hard time for me under your judgment," Samir Megahed said. The two spoke for a moment and then he had one more request.

"Can I bring Youssef to shake your hand?"

The family planned to celebrate in private Friday night with a barbecue at home. This weekend, Megahed plans to make good on his promise to take a younger brother to the beach.

On the way home, they took calls of congratulations on their cell phones from around the world, another brother said.

Megahed hopes now to return to college.

When arrested, he was one class away from a mechanical engineering degree at the University of South Florida.

He would need to reapply to be a student, the university says.

Friday, for the first time in a long time, that didn't seem so far-fetched.

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello, Richard Danielson, Robbyn Mitchell and Janet Zink contributed to this report.

. fast facts

The federal case

Youssef Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed, left, were indicted together. Mohamed took a plea deal in December, agreeing to serve 15 years in prison, leaving Megahed to stand trial on two of the seven original counts that applied directly to him.

Inside the jury room

At first, 10 jurors thought Megahed was guilty. What led to the about-face? 8A

Jurors acquit former USF student Youssef Megahed of both counts in explosives trial 04/03/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 6, 2009 12:38pm]
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