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For the Justice Department, a Welcome Conviction

The government has experienced a series of missteps and false starts in some terrorism cases.

April 26, 2006|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The conviction of a Lodi man on terrorism-related charges Tuesday is a much-needed victory for the Justice Department, which has stumbled recently in its pursuit of terrorism suspects in the courts.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, federal prosecutors have won cases against, among others, an Ohio truck driver accused of plotting to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge and a man who threatened to kill President Bush.

But there have also been a series of missteps and false starts. The government has seen juries starting to reject charges in some high-profile cases. In one instance, a judge threw out terrorism charges because of alleged misconduct by a federal prosecutor who was later indicted.

The flubs have provided ammunition to critics of the Justice Department and threatened to undermine public confidence in whether the prosecutions are protecting the nation from serious threats.

Tuesday's guilty verdict against 23-year-old Hamid Hayat was a measure of vindication. Hayat had been charged in connection with attending what prosecutors said was a terrorist camp in Pakistan in 2003 and then lying about his attendance to the FBI. A separate jury deadlocked on charges that his father lied to authorities about his son's participation at the camp, and a mistrial was declared.

Hayat was charged under a federal law that makes it a crime to provide "material support" to terrorists.

The case shows how prosecutors are attempting to use the law to disrupt what they see as evolving terrorist plots before they reach fruition.

But the strategy, first enunciated by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft a few weeks after the attacks at the Pentagon and in New York, has also been highly controversial.

Its supporters say it is an important tool to head off threats. Critics say it allows the government to subject people to lengthy prison terms based on little evidence that they intended to hurt anyone.

In effect, "you prosecute people not for what they have done but for what you fear they might do in the future," said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor. Some courts have held parts of the "material support" law unconstitutional on grounds that the law fails to give defendants adequate notice of what is illegal.

The prosecution of Hayat and his father appeared to be one such marginal case. The only evidence against the men were the videotaped confessions they gave last June to FBI agents and the testimony of a paid government informant.

Defense lawyers said the confessions were obtained under duress. The informant's credibility also seemed hurt after he testified to having seen a senior Al Qaeda operative in Lodi -- a sighting that terrorism experts universally dismissed as unlikely.

But ultimately, the government was able to prove that Hayat himself was not credible. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales said in a statement after the verdict Tuesday that "justice has been served against a man who supported and trained with our terrorist enemies in pursuit of his goal of violent jihad."

The courtroom victory was also unusual because most of the convictions the Justice Department has won since the Sept. 11 attacks have come by defendants pleading guilty to crimes rather than by the government proving its case in a court of law. The verdict also reverses what had been a worrisome trend for prosecutors.

In a major setback two years ago, a federal jury in Idaho acquitted a computer science student accused of aiding terrorists when he designed a website that included information on terrorists in Chechnya and Israel. Lawyers for Sami Omar al-Hussayen successfully argued that the government was seeking to criminalize his political views.

The government suffered another loss in December when a jury in Tampa, Fla., acquitted a former college professor indicted on charges of supporting terrorists by promoting the cause of Palestinian groups. The Justice Department had touted the case of Sami Al-Arian as an illustration of how the Patriot Act was empowering investigators by enabling law enforcement officials and intelligence operatives to share information.

And just last month, a former assistant U.S. attorney, Richard Convertino, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Detroit for alleged misconduct in connection with what was the first federal terrorism trial after the Sept. 11 attacks. Convertino has adamantly denied the charges, and has said he is being made a scapegoat for missteps by his Justice Department supervisors.

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