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Holy Land verdict reached, sealed; Jury ready, but judge who’s at conference sets reading for Monday

(The Dallas Morning News) After 19 days of deliberations, the jury in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism financing trial returned a verdict Thursday afternoon. But it will be three days before the defendants find out their fate.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Stickney said during a hastily called hearing Thursday that the jury’s decisions on the complex case will remain sealed until Monday morning, when the case’s presiding judge, U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish, returns to town.

“I do not have the authority or the power to read it to the court,” he said, referring to his status as a magistrate judge and not an “Article III” judge, or one who is appointed by the president.

Judge Fish left Judge Stickney in charge of the Holy Land case while he was out of town at a conference this week. Court officials did not say where the conference was being held.

The five Holy Land defendants, all but one a U.S. citizen, are accused of raising more than $12 million and wiring it to Palestinian charity committees, who prosecutors say were controlled by a terrorist group, Hamas.

Ing Newscivilians.

None of the five Holy Land officials was accused of any violent acts. Defense attorneys said their clients ran a legitimate charity and had no connection to Hamas or any other terrorists.

In Judge Fish’s absence, Judge Stickney’s role was to accept any juror notes and then consult with him by cellphone, as well as the attorneys, on how to respond, court officials said.

When jurors sent Judge Stickney a note about 2 p.m. indicating they had reached a verdict, he consulted with the attorneys as well as Judge Fish.

At one point, U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn, who has authority to preside over the reading of such a verdict because she is a presidential appointee, was going to do just that. But, with three of the four members of the prosecution team out of state because Judge Fish was gone, Judge Fish ultimately directed that the verdict be sealed until 10 a.m. Monday.

All the defense attorneys and their clients were present for the 3 p.m. hearing, during which most believed the verdict would be read.

None of the prosecutors or defense attorneys in the case commented Thursday because of Judge Fish’s long-standing gag order in the case.

The exact contents of the jurors’ note were not revealed Thursday, so it is unclear whether they reached unanimous decisions with respect to all charges for all five defendants, as well as the Holy Land charity, or whether they are deadlocked on some charges. All the jury’s notes in the case have been sealed until the case is finished.

While they waited for the jurors to file into the courtroom, the defendants talked among themselves. Former Holy Land CEO Shukri Abu Baker walked to where family members sat and tried to quiet some unsettled nerves before returning to the defense table as the courtroom was called to order.

Uncommon move

As the eight women and four men filed into the courtroom, some looked down and some stole glances out into the spectator section, while others looked at the defendants.

Judge Stickney then called for their verdict papers, which the forewoman handed him in a large paper envelope. Without hesitation, the judge handed the package to the court coordinator to be sealed.

Legal experts say that it is common for one judge to stand in for another in a case but not so common for a judge to seal a verdict, particularly for several days.

“Certainly in the vast majority of criminal and civil cases, if the judge is not available, some other judge will step in to take the verdict and read it,” said Tom Melsheimer, a former federal prosecutor in Dallas now in private practice.

“That said, there are some occasions where a judge will hold a verdict either because they’ve got other commitments or are not available,” he said. “It’s infrequent for a court to seal a verdict in excess of 72 hours pending return to the bench.”

But in a case as lengthy and complicated such as Holy Land, Mr. Melsheimer can see why the judge did what he did.

“It’s a complicated case, jury deliberations have been prolonged, and I can see why he wouldn’t want to put the burden of a verdict on another judge when he’s seen it through from the beginning, given his investment in the case.”

Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, said that after two months of testimony and four weeks of deliberations, Holy Land organizers and their families have been anxiously waiting for resolution.

“It’s really putting a lot of stress on the family,” he said after the verdict was sealed. “It has been for some time.”

Still, talking to reporters outside the courthouse, he held out hope that those involved with the charity would be cleared.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “Of course, we hope for vindication… There’s no way to know when you’ve got a group of 12 people which way it’s going to turn.”

Frustrated group

With just 20 minutes’ notice, court watchers, media and Holy Land supporters dropped everything to get to the courthouse for what they believed would be the reading of the verdict. Several who gathered in the overflow courtroom sighed and grumbled with frustration when they learned it would be Monday before the verdict is read.

Dr. Asma Salam, who is on the board of directors for the Dallas Peace Center, said she was at the Richardson mosque when she heard.

“I rushed and I drove – I don’t even want to tell you [how fast],” she said.

If the jury rendered guilty verdicts, it would be the first major courtroom victory for one of the government’s most innovative tools in the war on terrorism – combating violence by cutting off the money that funds it.

The Holy Land jury may have deliberated longer than any other jury in state history. In queries sent to hundreds of lawyers through the Dallas Bar Association, none remembered a jury considering a case for 19 days.

Nationwide, however, there are examples of both criminal and civil state and federal court trials where juries have deliberated for months.

Mr. Melsheimer said he’s never seen jury deliberations go on like this.

“In the 20 years I’ve been practicing law, I’ve never heard of a jury in Texas being out this long.”

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October 19, 2007 - Posted by | Blogroll, Homeland security, news, personal, politics, random, religion, Terrorism, Terrorism In The U.S., Terrorism News, Uncategorized, War-On-Terror

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