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Al-Arian and the "real" court

The justice system in this country is slowly becoming a joke. People are no longer judged before a jury of their peers but in the court of public opinion. Evidence as been replaced by opinion. We are guilty until proven innocent.

Or in the case of terrorism, guilty until proven guilty.

Take the case of Sami al-Arian. Only this time the justice system actually worked.

Al-Arian was a professor at South Florida University. He is also a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights. His often fiery vocal support for Palestinian causes made him a lighting rod of criticism and scrutiny. And apparently it was this passion that led the FBI to secretly keep tabs on Al-Arian for the last ten years.

And thanks to an easing of the laws through the Patriot Act, the government could conduct the witch-hunt it wanted. In February 2003, Al-Arian was arrested. He was charged with financing and promoting terrorism in the Middle East. And as if to drive home the importance of the case, then Attorney General Ashcroft even referred to Al-Arian as the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

The prosecution relied heavily on the almost 20,000 hours of taped conversations culled from wiretaps on Al-Arian and his associates. It took nearly five months for prosecutors to present their case, including the testimony of 80 witnesses. Al-Arian’s defense, when finally given a chance to respond had only this to say:

"On behalf of Dr. Al-Arian, the defense rests."

Al-Arian attorney’s realized that prosecutors had done such a piss poor job of laying out its case, presenting little more then mountains of jumbled transcripts and circumstantial evidence. The defense didn’t even call a single witness. Nowhere in the 20,000 hours of wiretaps was there a single call in which violent terrorist attacks were plotted as the prosecution alleged.

So on Dec. 6 2005, Al-Arian was acquitted of most of the charges against him. But rather then herald this as a victory for free speech, civil rights and due process, the media seemed to want to accentuate the negative. The first paragraph of Wednesday’s New York Times article is one example: “In a major defeat for law enforcement officials, a jury in Florida failed to return guilty verdicts Tuesday on any of 51 criminal counts against a former Florida professor and three co-defendants accused of operating a North American front for Palestinian terrorists.”

Why is it a “major defeat for law-enforcement officials”? Why is the jury seen as having “failed” because they refused to render a guilty verdict in what was an obviously politically motivated prosecution? Because the media is the conduit through which the court of public opinion receives its input. Physical evidence no longer matters, only opinion of guilt or innocence. Why else would the government label Al-Arian a “leader” of the PIJ in North America? To give the case more import then it deserves, thus swaying public opinion and influencing potential jurors (realize that the idea of empaneling an impartial jury today, what with our 24/7 news and access to the internet, is absurd to say the least.).

One can also look at the case of Scott Peterson to witness the court of public opinion. Even before he was found guilty of killing his wife and unborn baby in criminal court, Peterson was demonized and vilified in the media. So of course when he was found criminally liable, it was deemed that the jury had handed down the “right” verdict in the case because he was already seen as guilty in the eyes of the public.

Fair trials use to be a hallmark of this society. But if allow our opinions to dictate guilt and innocence, we may find we are all guilty of a far more heinous crime.

(Originally posted on Yahoo360)

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