Ten of the 12 jurors: much of the case never connected
Dec. 11, 2005
St. Petersburg Times
By Meg Laughlin
10 of the 12 jurors thought much of the case never connected
TAMPA - When the federal government asked Joann Thanh to serve on the jury for the trial of Sami Al-Arian, which ended last week, she had a reaction quite different from her fellow jurors: She was happy.
"I knew I wouldn't let my emotions or opinions enter into any of my decisions,and I thought I'd be good," she said. By all accounts, according to the jurors and alternates interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times, she kept her word.
In fact, they all say they ultimately came to see their roles as Thanh did, and base their decisions, not on opinions or emotions, but solely on the evidence. Still, most admit it took them longer than it took her. In the beginning, they say, they didn't care about evidence. They had but one thought: Get it over with.
"Except for Thanh, we were all asking ourselves "Why me? How can I get out of this?' " said juror Ron, 43, who like the other jurors asked that his last name not be used. (Thanh used her first and middle name but not her last name.)
In the beginning, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. told jurors the trial could take up to a year. He later condensed that estimate to six months and kept his word. But none knew at the start how long they would be there, or how difficult it would be. They only knew on that first day in early June that Al-Arian and three other defendants were charged with raising money for terrorism in Israel. And, that serving was causing them hardship.
Some got by on drastically reduced pay, relying on the $50 to $60 the government paid them daily to serve. Some left family members who depended upon them - spouses or parents with health problems and children and grandchildren, who were farmed out to day care. Some canceled vacations and classes.
All of them say it was a life-changing experience.
"After doing this, I will be positively sure to vote in all elections," Thanh said.
"Serving made me proud. It made me feel better about myself," said Deaundre, 30, who works in probation for the Florida Department of Corrections.
"It erased prejudices I didn't even know I had," said Ron, a FedEx driver.
During the trial, Thanh, who sells perfume at a department store, never mentioned her home life, fearing other jurors might think it would make her biased.
"I knew it wouldn't," she said.
When her fellow jurors chatted about preparing meals in the jury room, she never volunteered that she kept a kosher home, in the tradition of her husband's Orthodox Judaism. Or that she baked the challah bread for their Friday night Shabbat service. And she did not say that the family rabbi, upon learning that she was serving on the Al-Arian jury, had given her a simple piece of advice: "Always be fair.
That's what God wants."
Instead, she talked about her childhood in Saigon: the concussion when bombs hit, neighbors missing limbs, her black eyes from being the child of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier.
"We had a lot of time to talk, and we learned everything about each other," said Donna, 53, an alternate.
They bonded. They never thought they would, coming from such disparate backgrounds. But they did. Even at the end, when two - sometimes three of them - disagreed with the majority and they had to declare mistrials on 17 of the 51 counts, they say they still cared deeply for each other.
"The respect, the caring never lessened," says Beryl, 62, a retired middle school counselor who took care of her three grandchildren until the trial started.
They were homemakers, government workers, truck drivers and retirees. There was a symphony administrator, a retired butcher and a deli manager.
Most were Republican and Christian, one a fundamentalist, another a self-described "fallen Catholic." Thanh, born into a Buddhist home, adopted Orthodox Judaism for her husband.
Together, jurors weathered the muggy heat of summer, made it to a balmy fall, then chilly weather came and went. They discussed hurricane threats and Red Tide. They watched through the jury room windows as a huge dirt hole across the street became a rebar-studded foundation, then three stories of a 16-story building. Summer's pelicans gave way to winter migrating vultures, and evenings of late golden light turned to early darkness.
Mostly, they talked jobs and families, scattering photos across the rectangular wooden table in the jury room. Photos of the kids and the anniversary cruise. Photos of birthday parties and vacations.
"I used to stare out the window at a clock on a building, and it seemed so slow," Deaundre said.
Days dragged into months as they listened to baffling testimony about visa forms and explanations of computer programing.
They fought sleep - sometimes failing. Thanh brought gourmet coffee - hazelnut and raspberry chocolate - brewed in the jury room. Beryl brought hard candy to suck on. Shir made apple pies and apple bread to give them a sugar high. Ron wisecracked to keep them laughing. During breaks, four of them smoked on the side of the building. Others put thousand-piece jigsaws of country scenes together, while some read magazines or played solitaire. Donna made six snowflake Christmas ornaments covered with glitter. Shar glued fuzzy, Day-Glo material onto rubber flip-flops to make them fancy. Beryl made wooden candy canes for her grandchildren.
Repeatedly, Moody tried to reassure them after baffling testimony, which seemed to go nowhere: "The government is asking you to trust that they're going to tie this up later."
But when it came time to deliberate in mid November, 10 of the 12 thought much of it never connected, as evidenced by their verdicts.
"We thought the prosecutors did a good job in their closing argument, but they didn't have much convincing evidence to work with," said Deirdre, 29.
They began deliberating on Nov. 15, diligently pulling evidence from boxes and poring over it to see how it matched the charges. Within three days, they had read enough and pieced enough together to vote unanimously to find two of the defendants - Ghassan Ballut and Sameeh Hammoudeh - not guilty of all charges, which included conspiracy to fund terrorism, money laundering and visa fraud.
Several jurors said that none could figure out why Ballut was on trial. And the testimony of Hammoudeh's father clinched his not-guilty verdicts.
His father, Taha Hammoudeh, came from the occupied territories with dozens of charitable receipts in hand and talked about where money sent by his son in the United States went. The father talked about a life dedicated to Middle Eastern social services.
They agreed to acquit co-defendant Hatem Fariz on 25 of 33 counts, and intended to go back to the unresolved charges.
Then they turned their attention to Al-Arian.
They all quickly agreed the evidence didn't support the charges that he "conspired to murder and maim," or "obstruct justice." But they ran into problems with nine counts - racketeering conspiracy, providing material support to terrorists, illegal interstate or foreign commerce and immigration fraud.
All of the jurors who spoke to the Times say they were strongly influenced by jury instruction No. 18, which said: "Our law does not criminalize beliefs or mere membership in an organization."
They say 10 of them wanted to acquit on the racketeering charges and the interstate commerce charges. Nine wanted to acquit on the charge of giving material support, and five wanted to acquit on the immigration charges. Thanh, Ron and Todd were among a group of five for total acquittal.
"I was not there to do anything but match evidence with charges and see if it proved the government's case beyond a reasonable doubt," Thanh said. "I was very clear that it did not."
The two jurors who held out for conviction on Count One could not be reached. A third, who held out on the commerce counts, declined to be interviewed.
With the vote on the immigration charges shifting to seven for acquittal, jurors still couldn't reach unanimous verdicts on nine undecided counts. They sent the judge a note saying they were having trouble on some counts for two defendants.
Moody told them to keep trying. And they did.
"We thought things were proceeding civilly and logically," said the forewoman.
They had flipped one of the interstate commerce charges into acquittal and were agreeing to flip more.
"We were a hair's breadth away from acquitting on four more Al-Arian charges when the judge stopped us," Ron said.
Moody called them into the courtroom and said a juror had sent him a note saying she felt coerced.
"It shocked us," Thanh said. "We had no clue."
Moody told them to vote on whether any of them felt they could proceed without any of them feeling pressured. Shir, who sent the note, began crying when they returned to the jury room, prompting several jurors to say they should stop, in sympathy for her. They told Moody. He ended the trial and read the verdicts: Eight acquittals and nine hung counts for Al-Arian. Twenty-five acquittals for Fariz and eight hung counts. No guilty verdicts for anyone.
"We felt like failures because we hadn't finished," Todd said. "If we had stayed and worked, I think with Sami, we would have acquitted on everything but the immigration fraud charge."
But, the jurors say they are still extremely proud to have been part of a decision so important.
"We were just trying to do our duty at the time, but now we see the historic implications," said the forewoman.
They miss each other, they say. Ron and Deaundre say they even miss the trial - being part of something larger than themselves. They miss the charge to do the right thing. They miss what it brought out in them.
Donna just hung her six snowflake ornaments on her Christmas tree. On the one near the top, she wrote: "Dr. Al-Arian trial 6-2005."
"It will always be on our tree as a reminder," she says.
Todd has gone to the woods of Georgia for several days to "look at birds and trees."
Beryl is back with her grandchildren.
Every Friday night, Thanh, her husband, Terry, and two children gather around the dining room table to celebrate Shabbat.
On Friday, Terry lit the candles and chanted traditional Jewish prayer in Hebrew: "Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the universe who has . . . commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights. . . ." Thanh bowed her head and prayed.
"The Shabbat light guides me to be a good person," she said. "Since the trial, it burns a little brighter for us."