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Monday, Sep 15, 2014
Crime & Courts

Terrorism charges complicate jury selection in Tampa man’s trial

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Published:   |   Updated: May 27, 2014 at 07:46 PM

— A retired firefighter said he was profoundly affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and couldn’t be fair to someone accused of terrorism.

A woman wept at the idea of being separated from her children during the day if picked to serve on a jury for two weeks.

They and more than 50 other prospective jurors were excused from the pool of 91 people interviewed Tuesday in the trial of Sami Osmakac, accused of plotting a terrorist attack in Tampa. Osmakac, a naturalized citizen from Kosovo, was arrested in January 2012 following an FBI sting.

He is charged with attempting to possess a weapon of mass destruction and possession of an unregistered machine gun. The defense is arguing that he was entrapped and that he was vulnerable to persuasion because of mental illness.

Jury selection began Tuesday. After U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven questioned 91 people and excused dozens who had hardship excuses or could not be fair, 37 remained.

Included in that group was at least one lawyer, a child psychiatrist and a retired television news anchorwoman.

Scriven said she will bring the 37 to court Wednesday morning and attempt to select a final jury of 12, plus four alternates. With the defense allotted 10 peremptory challenges and the prosecution six, Scriven said she’s not sure there will be enough candidates in the pool, considering others may have to be excused, so she will have others on standby in case she needs to find more jurors.

In any event, it seems likely opening statements will be delivered Wednesday. The government’s first witness, an undercover FBI employee, will testify under an pseudonym and behind a screen so he is not visible to spectators in the courtroom gallery. He is expected to be on the stand for four days.

Osmakac, who had asked to be provided traditional Arab clothing, appeared instead in a white, linen suit brought by his family. Defense lawyer George Tragos asked if Osmakac’s leg shackles could be removed during the trial, but Scriven said the extra security was warranted, and she denied the request. The shackles were not visible to jurors.

The entire courthouse was cloaked in extra security, from the Homeland Security officers outside with a dog to an extra metal detector in the hall outside the courtroom, where spectators were required to sign in and provide identification.

Because Osmakac says his Muslim religious beliefs require that he not stand when the judge or jury enters the courtroom, potential jurors were asked if they could follow the court’s instruction not to hold that against him.

Most said they could follow the instruction. But a handful said they couldn’t obey the directive because they felt Osmakac should be compelled to show respect to the court.

“This is America’s court system,” said a retired physician. “I respect it and we honor judges and jury members. I feel we all should do that. That’s the American way.

Scriven told him the American way is also to allow people to freely practice their religion.

“I don’t see how that has to do with religion,” the man responded. When prompted, he said he could try to follow the judge’s instructions but wasn’t sure if he would be able.

He said he also had a hard time being fair to someone accused of terrorism because that “attacks the whole country, and I personally feel America has been too easy on them.” To him, anyone accused of terrorism starts “with one foot in the hole. They would have to prove pretty strongly their innocence.”

He was excused from serving.

Another man told Scriven, “No matter what your religion is, I believe that everyone in this room is equal and everyone should abide by the same rules.” Still, he said, he would not be able to follow the court’s instruction not to hold against the defendant the fact he wasn’t standing. He was excused.

A pool service business owner said she was in Nairobi when the U.S. embassy was hit by a terrorist attack in 1998. She said she saw the carnage after. “That really affected me,” she said, adding she couldn’t be fair in this case. She, too, was excused.

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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