Eleven women and seven men were selected Friday to serve in a marathon terrorism-financing trial that will feature at least three months of testimony on mountains of documents and at least a decade of secret wiretap evidence gathered on the Holy Land Foundation.
The former Richardson-based Muslim charity, the largest in the U.S. until the government shut it down in December 2001, and five of its former organizers are accused of raising millions of dollars for the Middle Eastern terrorist group Hamas.
After a week of questioning and legal wrangling, 12 jurors – plus six alternates – were whittled down from a pool of 50. Several were excused throughout the week because of financial or health reasons, or because they had already formed an opinion in the case.
Jurors are not told who among them are alternates, so that none are tempted to pay less attention to the evidence because they believe they will not be deliberating on it.
During the months of testimony, much of which deals with overseas bank transactions, a big worry for prosecutors will be juror fatigue. Burnout played a role in at least one of two other terrorism-financing cases in Illinois and Florida. Both trials, which also lasted for months, ended in acquittals on the most serious charges.
Asking a jury to remain alert through months of technical evidence is “a tall order,” said Peter Margulies, a law professor at Roger Williams University who studies terrorism prosecutions. The government must “boil down its theory to key points and move quickly to establish the theory,” the professor said.
The jury includes a mix of races and ethnicities, including several blacks, several whites and at least one Hispanic juror.
Prosecutors hope to convince them that the Holy Land Foundation and five of its organizers raised money throughout the U.S. and sent it to Palestinian charity committees, who spent it on humanitarian aid.
The government says those Palestinian committees were controlled by Hamas, which the U.S. designated as a terrorist organization in 1995. Supporting any designated terrorist group is illegal.
The defendants, including a former Dallas public works supervisor, say their charity only benefited needy families devastated by the bloody Arab-Israeli conflict, and was not a front for Hamas.
During four days of juror questioning, a few potential panelists told the attorneys they couldn’t serve for fear of retaliation if they returned a guilty verdict in a terrorism-related trial.
Through their questioning, defense attorneys and prosecutors revealed clues about the type of juror they seemed to be seeking.
One of the jurors is a Hispanic woman who teaches English as a second language. Defense attorney Linda Moreno asked her during the questioning of potential jurors whether she’s ever encountered a situation where something in Spanish was translated into literal English, distorting its original meaning. She said she had.
In the Holy Land trial, defense attorneys are expected to attack translations of some of the government’s transcripts of the defendants’ wiretapped conversations, many of which were in Arabic. The government plans to use some of the conversations to prove that the Holy Land organizers were sympathetic to Hamas.
Another woman who made it onto the jury told attorneys that some of her children had been in trouble with the law on minor charges. Lead prosecutor Jim Jacks wanted to know if the woman, who is black, thought her children were treated fairly by the system. The woman said she thought they had been.
Mr. Jacks also asked the woman a question he asked nearly all the potential jurors: whether they could follow a law that says even humanitarian aid is illegal if provided to a designated terrorist group. This juror said she could.
Some, however, said they would have trouble returning a guilty verdict against those who provided charitable aid.
On Friday, some potential jurors made one last attempt to be excused. One man told U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish that he had forgotten to tell the attorneys that he had contributed money to the Minutemen, whose volunteers patrol the border to catch illegal immigrants. He wasn’t selected for the jury.
On Monday, Judge Fish will preside over a hearing among lawyers for both sides debating the qualifications of one of the government’s expert witnesses, Matthew Levitt, author of Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad.
Opening statements in the case are expected Tuesday.
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