A federal appeals court is struggling with the case of a former Florida college professor who admitted to aiding Palestinian Islamic Jihad but later insisted that his plea deal precluded the government from calling him before a grand jury investigating Islamic charities in Virginia.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for 45 minutes here yesterday about the dispute’s circuitous journey through four federal courts, resulting in the professor, Sami Al-Arian, spending nine months in jail, so far, for refusing to testify before the Alexandria, Va.-based grand jury.

“This is such a mess,” one member of the three-judge appeals panel, Rosemary Barkett, declared.

“It is a mess,” the prosecutor arguing for the government, Karin Hoppmann, replied. “It’s a Gordian knot,” she added in a later exchange.

A vexing legal problem in the case stems from the fact that the Virginia-based judge in charge of the grand jury, Gerald Lee, referred the dispute about the meaning of Al-Arian’s plea deal to a Tampa-based jurist, James Moody Jr., who accepted Al-Arian’s plea and oversaw an earlier trial at which the Palestinian Arab activist was acquitted on some charges. A federal prosecutor in Virginia backed the referral, but the government later took the position that referring such legal questions to another jurisdiction is illegal and unconstitutional.

Ms. Hoppmann, who is based in Tampa, said yesterday that the Virginia-based prosecutor, Gordon Kromberg, made “a mistake” when he agreed that the plea issue should be settled in Florida. (MORE)


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