Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Meet Youssef Megahed and the police state in America

Youssef Megahed was acquitted by a jury on charges of illegal possession and transport of explosives:

Megahed came to the United States from Egypt in 1998 as a legal immigrant when he was 12. His problems started two years ago when, as an engineering student at the University of South Florida, he went on a road trip with a new friend, Ahmed Mohamed.

The men were pulled over on a highway, near Charleston, South Carolina, for speeding.

Police say they searched their vehicle and found PVC pipe with potassium nitrate inside, along with detonator cord inside one of Mohamed's bags.

The government said the materials were "low explosives." Mohamed said they were materials for homemade model rockets.

Youssef Megahed claimed he did not know that the materials were in the car.

A search of Mohamed's laptop computer found research concerning rockets and propellants and how to manufacture them, as well as information about Qassam rockets -- crude rockets used by terrorists in the Middle East, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors also had a video, made and narrated by Mohamed, in which he demonstrates how to outfit a model car with explosives. He posted it on "YouTube."

Mohamed pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists and is serving a 15-year prison sentence.

However, Megahed went to trial and was found not guilty on two charges of possession and transportation of explosives. He was later set free.

"I'm very happy with this," he said, smiling to reporters after his acquittal.

Jurors later said they believed that Megahed did not know the "low explosives" were in the car.

Gary Meringer and the other 11 jurors deliberated for over three days in U.S. district court in Tampa before reaching their unanimous verdict.

But the story did not end here:

Megahed left the courthouse on Friday, April 3, ready to resume his life and his studies. He and his family spent the weekend at the beach at Fort DeSoto, Florida. Three days later, federal agents surrounded him, and his father, Samir, as they left a Wal-mart store near their home in Tampa and he was arrested again.

"They surround us....I'm in shock. They didn't give us a chance to speak to somebody to know what was going on," said Samir Megahed. "I try to open the telephone, but they didn't allow me," he said.

Megahed is now being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as someone ICE says is "engaged or likely to become engaged in ... terrorist activity" even though he has never been criminally charged with terrorism.

ICE will present an immigration judge with the very same facts that led to Megahed's acquittal in the criminal case. In immigration court, the burden of proof is significantly less.

The evidence, from a search of the computer at his family's home, includes "numerous videos, documents and an Internet search history that supports Islamic extremism, jihad against the United States...," ICE alleged in court documents.

If found guilty, Megahed will be deported.

CNN requested an on-camera interview with Megahed, but ICE would not allow it.

"Because of the national security implications of this case, ICE cannot allow the use of recording devices during in-person interviews with Mr. Megahed," spokesman Richard Rocha said in an e-mail.

How does the State see the situation? In the new world under the Obama administration (currently mooting the issue of indefinite detention of suspects without trial), this is instructive:

This is not the first time the government has gone to immigration court as a last resort after failing to win a criminal prosecution.

"The government doesn't use this a lot, but I think this is an arrow in the quiver that needs to stay because there are those cases where the government needs to do everything in its power to keep us safe, from some of those same individuals," said former U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis.

"In one context, the real question is, are you going to jail for a long period of time. The other context is, are you going to get to live among us," Lewis said.

Some folks, like columnist Howard Wexler, don't have much difficulty with this, because despite the fact that Megahed's finger prints were not found on anything in the vehicle's trunk and that Mohamed (in pleading guilty himself) said Megahed had no knowledge of the materials, we're not real comfortable when people with foreign-sounding names get caught in bad situations:

Megahed, a permanent U.S. resident whose family has lived here 11 years, made one bad judgment, namely, to hang out with Mohamed and to ride with him in his car to South Carolina, where they were arrested during a 2007 traffic stop.

Megahed says he doesn't even know what was in the trunk, and we can't prove any different — after all, none of his prints were on the stuff.

Last, there is no question that the feds are getting two bites at the apple, double jeopardy or not. They seem determined to Get Him. Is this sour grapes? Sure looks like it.

So, why isn't this a slam-dunk for letting him go at once? Because the standards for deportation are different. As hard as I try, I am not entirely comfortable that driving around South Carolina in the middle of the night with a trunk full of weird stuff with a buddy who likes blow-things-up videos was just fun and games.

Let an immigration judge decide.

Let's be clear: the State doesn't appear to have any new evidence beyond that presented at Megahed's trial. Wexler is right: deportation standards are lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt requirement in the original trial. Yet jury foreman Gary Meringer is quite clear that reasonable doubt is not what acquitted Megahed:

"We were all waiting for a shoe to drop, for some kind of a case to be made....so, after two weeks, it seemed to me there was no case, and nothing for us to decide," Meringer said.

"This case never should have seen the light of day in a courtroom."

This is a somewhat tricky issue for lots of Americans, because intellectual consistency can tie you into knots. Remember the Rodney King acquittal back in April 1992, the outrage that followed, and the general rejoicing that the Feds then filed Civil Rights charges against the same officers for the same crime with the same evidence?

I remember taking a lot of crap then because even though I admitted that the second trial was not, in due process terms, double jeopardy, I thought it was inappropriate for each level of the State to keep to get taking shots at the accused with exactly the same evidence until it scores the verdict it wants. Nobody wanted to hear the idea that this was a violation of the intellectual and moral concept of double jeopardy--and in many quarters (including my own classroom) people with whom I made the mistake of discussing the case considered any qualms about an abuse of State prosecutorial power as prima facie evidence of racism....

But now the same process that was--its adherents argued--used to protect the civil rights of Rodney King is being used to deprive Youssef Megahed of his.


Anonymous said...

Clearly, America's pained logic will cost us dearly. Thank you for this posting!

tom said...

Yeah, I was not happy about the Rodney King beating "double jeopardy" either. The fact that (in my opinion) a proper outcome was obtained made the use of unconstitutional tactics a little more palatable, but not much.

After the first acquittal, which I strongly disagreed with, there should have been no further criminal prosecution. The officers, of course, deserved to be fired and forfeit their bonds, but that is a matter for their employer to decide.

The risk of occasionally, or even frequently, letting the guilty go free is far better than the alternative of punishing the innocent.