Mistrial in Case of Muslim Charity Accused of Funding Terror After Verdict Confusion

The biggest terror-financing trial since Sept. 11 ended in confusion Monday, with no one convicted and many acquittals thrown out after three jurors took the rare step of disputing the verdict.

Prosecutors said they would probably retry leaders of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, as well as the organization itself, which the federal government shut down in December 2001.

Defendants and their supporters considered the outcome a victory. Outside the courthouse, jubilant family members and supporters hoisted defendant and Holy Land chief executive Shukri Abu Baker on their shoulders and cried, "God is great!"

After two months of testimony and 19 days of deliberations, the jury reached verdicts for only one of the five defendants, finding former Holy Land chairman Mohammed El-Mezain not guilty of 31 of 32 counts and deadlocking on the remaining charge.

Acquittals for two other defendants, Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh, also were read in court. But when the judge polled each juror — normally a formality — things turned chaotic, as three jurors said they disagreed with the verdicts.

U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish sent the jury back to resolve the differences, but after about an hour he said he received a note from the jury saying 11 of the 12 felt further deliberations would not lead them to reach a unanimous decision. Then he declared a mistrial.

The jury forewoman said none of the jurors raised objections to the verdicts in the jury room.

The jury reached verdicts Thursday, but they were sealed until Monday because Fish had been out of town.

Juror William Neal told The Associated Press that the panel found little evidence against three of the defendants and was evenly split on charges against Baker and former Holy Land chairman Ghassan Elashi, who were seen as the principal leaders of the charity.

"I thought they were not guilty across the board," said Neal, a 33-year-old art director from Dallas. The case "was strung together with macaroni noodles. There was so little evidence."

President Bush personally announced the seizure of Holy Land's assets in December 2001, calling the action "another step in the war on terrorism."

FBI agents and Israeli officials testified that Holy Land funneled millions of dollars to Hamas, which has carried out suicide bombings in Israel. The U.S. government designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1995, making financial transactions with it illegal.

Holy Land's lawyers deny the allegations and say the group helped Muslim children and families left homeless or poor by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The defendants were charged with dozens of counts, including aiding a terrorist organization, conspiracy, money laundering and tax charges. The only charge remaining against El-Mezain is conspiracy to provide support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

Lead prosecutor James Jacks said in court that he expected the government to try the case again, but he could not elaborate outside court because the judge extended a gag order he placed on lawyers in the case.

"This is a stunning setback for the government," said a former U.S. attorney, Matthew Orwig. "There is absolutely nothing positive in that verdict today for the government."

Orwig said if prosecutors retry the case, they should dramatically simplify it and perhaps focus on fewer defendants.

The prosecution's key witness was a lawyer for the Israeli domestic security agency Shin Bet who testified under a false name. He said Palestinian charities that got Holy Land money were controlled by Hamas.

Neal, the juror, said he found the Shin Bet officer's testimony unconvincing — that he would expect an Israeli official to condemn an ally of Palestinians.

Holy Land was founded in California in the late 1980s and moved to the Dallas area in 1992. The case followed terror-financing trials in Chicago and Florida that also ended without convictions on the major counts.

The government "failed in Chicago, it failed in Florida, it failed in Texas," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of dozens of Muslim groups named as unindicted co-conspirators. "The reason it failed is the government does not have the facts; it has fear."

The men faced as many as 20 years in prison on the most serious charges. Prosecutors chose not to allege that deaths resulted from the defendants' actions, which could have made them eligible for life in prison, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office.