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Celebrating outside the federal courthouse in Dallas after the trial on Oct. 22

Coming up empty

Crime | After 19 days of deliberation, a federal judge declares a mistrial in a landmark terrorism financing case

Issue: "Elephant in the room," Nov. 3, 2007

Years of federal investigation, months of sworn testimony, weeks of jury deliberation, and four days awaiting the release of a sealed verdict culminated in confusion and debacle Oct. 22. The 12-member citizen panel charged with adjudicating the largest terrorism financing case in U.S. history appeared to crumble under stacks of convoluted evidence.

Government attorneys had hoped to establish criminal links between the Palestinian terror group Hamas and the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), a Dallas-based Muslim charity shut down by authorities in 2001. Instead, prosecutors overwhelmed jurors, frustrated observers, and provoked a mistrial. "They just put too much on us to deal with," juror William Neal told the Dallas Morning News. "It was a waste of my time to go this long and come out empty."

Initially, U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish read a verdict that seemed only half empty: The ruling acquitted one of the six HLF defendants, found two others innocent of most charges, and deadlocked on the remaining three. But during the judge's subsequent routine polling of the jury, three members balked on their previous positions, apparently unaware of what they had voted for during deliberations. Given an hour to resolve the conflict, the jury failed and left Fish few options but to declare a mistrial.

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Celebration ensued from supporters of the HLF and members of several prominent Muslim groups named as unindicted co-conspirators in the case. Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), compared the trial to McCarthyism in the 1950s. CAIR Board Chairman Parvez Ahmed expressed gratitude to the jury for seeing through charges that he believes were "based on fear, not facts."

But such statements of victory could prove premature. None of the six defendants was exonerated of the charges. And lead prosecutor Jim Jacks told the judge that the Department of Justice intends to retry the case.

Steve Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and author of six books on terrorism and national security, is hopeful that convictions may still lie ahead, given the body of evidence presented at trial. He considers distasteful the celebratory reaction from unindicted Muslim groups such as CAIR and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). "They're celebrating people that commit murder and that openly proclaim their affiliation with Hamas," he said. "It's like openly celebrating the acquittal of David Duke."

Emerson told WORLD neither side can rightly claim victory, calling the result a draw. But he admitted that the mistrial could carry negative ramifications for the prospect of future terror financing prosecutions: "You always become gun-shy when you don't win."

The justice department has now failed to win several recent high-profile cases against U.S.-based groups and individuals with suspected ties to terrorist organizations. This past February, an Illinois jury acquitted Chicago businessman Muhammad Salah of charges that he funneled money to Hamas for the purchase of weapons. In 2005, University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian received a not-guilty verdict on a charge of conspiring to murder people overseas.

Muslim civil-rights groups point to such defeats in accusing the government of conducting witch hunts. But the Justice Department is not without convictions. And the scrutiny of public trials can often expose shady networks enough to halt illegal activity, no matter whether or not jurors convict.

Indeed, government officials achieved much of their aim in the Holy Land case six years ago, when President George W. Bush froze the charity's assets and closed down its operation. Not until 2004 did U.S. attorneys indict the foundation's leaders. In a statement at that time Attorney General John Ashcroft said, "This prosecution sends a clear message: There is no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance terrorist attacks. The United States will ensure that both terrorists and their financiers meet the same, certain justice."

Alberto Gonzales maintained that aggressive posture toward terror suspects throughout his tenure atop the justice department. Much of the debate over whether to confirm new attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey centers on his philosophy for conducting terror-related investigations, specifically whether the president can authorize warrantless wiretaps on calls routed through the United States.

Wiretapping, albeit court-sanctioned, played an important role in building a case against HLF. Government attorneys cited hundreds of bugged conversations, internal memos, and banking records in an effort to prove that HLF operated as a front group for Hamas fundraising in the United States. The prosecution alleged that $12 million has flowed from Holy Land to Hamas since 1995, when the government labeled Hamas a terrorist organization.

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