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Daniel Ruth

Judge, jury, verdict? Doesn't matter

This is what the criminal justice system looks like when it is hijacked by the mother-in-law from hell meets North Korea.

Last week, former University of South Florida engineering student Youssef Megahed walked out of a federal courtroom in Tampa a free man after being found not guilty of charges of illegally transporting explosives and possessing a destructive device.

Four days later, he found himself sitting in another federal jail cell — convicted of first degree sour grapes.

Since August 2007, Megahed had lived under the shadow of being a suspected terrorist after a car he was a passenger in was stopped by South Carolina law enforcement officers who discovered PVC pipes filled with an explosive mixture in the trunk. Uh-oh. It is probably not a real bright idea in this post-9/11 era to be a young Arab man driving near a U.S. Navy base with anything that so much as burps in the car.

That was the lesson Megahed's co-defendant, the driver and owner of the car, Ahmed Mohamed, learned all too well. In December, Mohamed agreed to a plea deal on the explosives charges and is now serving a 15-year prison term for being a felonious chucklehead.

For Megahed, things weren't so clear cut. The student insisted he was simply along for the ride with Mohamed and knew nothing about the suspicious materials in the trunk. And indeed, no physical evidence such as fingerprints linked him to the pipes.

Like his friend, Megahed could have cut a deal to spare himself a lengthy prison term. But he didn't. He insisted on his innocence. He wanted his day in court. And he got it.

Megahed's trial in federal court lasted three weeks. A jury of five men and seven women deliberated more than 21 hours. They haggled. They asked questions. They weighed the evidence. They went back and forth. They pondered. And in the end, they did their job as responsible adults charged with one of the most sobering acts of citizenship any American can be asked to take on.

Not guilty, they decided. Jurisprudence worked exactly as it is designed. The cornerstone of our criminal justice system — due process, for everyone — had prevailed. And it meant — absolutely bupkes.

Days after his acquittal, Megahed was snatched off the streets by U.S. Immigration and Customs agents and charged with vague "civil violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act." Like embarrassing federal prosecutors.

And he now sits in jail pending deportation proceedings. Did Megahed break any laws? No.

Indeed, Megahed's only crime appears to have once been a defendant in a criminal case, in which he was found not guilty by a jury. Immigration and Customs Enforcement insists incarcerating this young man does not constitute double jeopardy because the deportation action is a civil matter. But that is complete hooey, or words to that effect.

A question. Had Megahed simply been a young man living in this country as a permanent resident alien who had never been charged with a crime, much less acquitted — acquitted — in federal court, would he still have been dragooned off the streets and tossed in the calaboose?

To be sure, the slack-jawed Deliverance-esque blogosphere has been frothing with the spittle of redneck rubes hailing Megahed's jackbooted arrest and calling for his immediate deportation.

For what? For being different? For being an Arab? For being a Muslim? For being right?

America has a long and checkered history of discrimination and persecution of immigrants. In different times the Irish, Italians, Asians and others have felt the sting of bigotry. Once you could get in an awful lot of trouble with a vowel at the end of your name. Today a Koran can become a virtual noose.

But for all its historical faults, this country still stands for justice for all. It makes it difficult for the United States to preach to the world about the sanctity of our courts, the fealty to fairness and due process when those who sought that very justice become victims after exercising their civil rights.

The bullying of Megahed by ICE trampled on the court system, on our democracy. What's the point of immigrants in a legal pickle challenging the charges against them if they are only going to be dragged off the streets by government agents who loathe the ability of a jury to reach an honest verdict?

What happened to Youssef Megahed amounts to a de facto obstruction of justice.

Megahed may be the one sitting in jail. But we've all been shackled by fear, ignorance and bureaucratic tyranny.

Judge, jury, verdict? Doesn't matter 04/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 10, 2009 1:00am]
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