DALLAS ­ Of the first 26 people interviewed for jury duty in the case of Muslim charity officials accused of financing Hamas terrorists, three said they feared for their safety, including one man who said he wouldn’t put anything past the Middle Eastern militants.

None of the three made it on the jury that was picked last week to hear the case against Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and five of its former officials. Opening statements are scheduled for Tuesday.

But former prosecutors and jury-selection experts say the fact that some people expressed fear underscores the difficulty of ensuring a fair trial for the defendants, all Muslim men originally from the Middle East.

“If three say, ‘I’m afraid of Hamas tracking me down,’ it might actually be a much higher number who are fearful,” said Philip K. Anthony, chief executive of DecisionQuest, a jury-selection consulting firm.

The federal judge in the case, A. Joe Smith, took steps to produce an unbiased jury. He summoned 750 people for the jury pool. They filled out questionnaires and were quizzed by prosecutors and defense lawyers about their knowledge of the case, whether they could be fair, and even whether they knew any Muslims ­ most didn’t.

The court declined to release the names of potential jurors, although they were addressed by last name in open court. The pool was whittled to 12 jurors and six alternates by Friday. The trial could last several months.

Tom Melsheimer, a former federal prosecutor in Dallas, said the defendants would get “the fairest trial possible,” but added it would be “very hard to get a fair trial in a climate like this with accusations like this. There is tremendous fear of terrorism and of Muslim groups.”

Melsheimer recently defended a Dallas businessman who was also accused of helping Hamas. The man was never charged, but he was deported to Jordan on immigration violations that Melsheimer didn’t dispute.

The biggest obstacle in the Holy Land case, Melsheimer said, might be that “the jury is not likely to look like the defendants, and that’s always scary for a defendant.”

Other trials have been faced with the challenge of finding jurors who can be impartial toward Muslim defendants after Sept. 11.

In the ongoing Miami trial of accused terrorist Jose Padilla, many potential jurors said they couldn’t be fair. Several spoke of the images of the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

A Holy Land supporter, Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said two recent cases make him think the jury can be fair.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.