Bombing trial left N.Y. jury torn, fearful

Concerns were raised over use of death penalty


NEW YORK - It was, in early 2001, the U.S. government's most significant prosecution of al-Qaida terrorists. Federal prosecutors, in trying four men for conspiring in the deadly bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, were for the first time seeking executions for acts of international terrorism. An anonymous jury was selected for the case, United States vs. Osama bin Laden, and the federal courthouse in Manhattan seemed some days like an armed zone.

Ultimately, the four - Wadih El-Hage, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed and Mohammed Saddiq Odeh - were convicted of conspiring with Osama bin Laden in the attacks, which left 224 dead. But the two who faced the death penalty - al-'Owhali and Mohamed - were sentenced to life without parole when the jury twice deadlocked on the question of execution.

It was, then, an enormous if still incomplete victory for the government in its effort before Sept. 11, 2001, to try terrorists in civilian courts.

But interviews with the jurors show that two of them, concerned about the religious implications of voting for execution, violated the judge's directive by consulting their local pastors during deliberations.

Another juror confused the court during jury selection about his willingness to impose a death sentence, and from the early stages of the trial had ruled it out. In the end, his adamant refusal to consider death helped lead to the deadlocks on execution.

Yet another juror said that he was afraid throughout the trial of possible retaliation by Islamic terrorists, and that he, as the lone Jew on the panel, felt especially vulnerable. "Maybe I'm overly fearful," the juror said of his experience, "but these are crazy times we live in." The juror was one of three to vote against the death penalty in both instances.

Five jurors initially voted to acquit El-Hage, bin Laden's personal secretary, of participating in the terrorism conspiracy. It took 1 1/2 days for them to switch their positions, according to a juror's detailed notes.

A number of jurors also became aware that the accused were in leg shackles, a fact the court had tried to keep hidden from them with a cloth so as not to undermine the presumption of innocence.

The details of the deliberations of the jury that convicted the four men of conspiring in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are the result of extensive interviews done during the past year with nine of the 12 anonymous jurors. All nine spoke on the condition that their anonymity be preserved.

The revelations about the jury's actions, previously known only among the 12 men and women, come amid intense debate about whether trials in civilian courts are appropriate for deciding the fates of terrorist suspects. The Bush administration argues that military tribunals are a better way to try some international terrorists and to more successfully win death penalties. One administration concern involves a problem that appears to have surfaced in the bombings trial: In terror cases, jurors might feel vulnerable to reprisal, and such fears could influence their actions.

In interviews, lawyers for the convicted men, while grateful that the lives of their clients were finally spared, said they were troubled to learn that jurors had sought outside advice. All four men are appealing their convictions, but whether the disclosures about the jury's conduct could play a role in those appeals is unclear, the lawyers said. (Both jurors who sought spiritual guidance voted for death.)

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