The federal appeals court in Atlanta has upheld the conviction of an Arab Muslim man even though a juror during deliberations slipped a note to a clerk that said she feared for her safety because “this reeks of al Qaeda.”
The unanimous opinion said U.S. District Court Judge William Dimitrouleas of Ft.
Lauderdale acted appropriately by questioning Juror No. 9 outside the presence of the other jurors and then deciding to leave her on the jury.
On trial was Nael Sammour, a 55-year-old man who owned a wholesale grocery store in Broward County. The Arab Muslim immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 and soon began committing a number of crimes.
On Aug. 26, 2013, Dimitrouleas sentenced Sammour to 11 years and 7 months in prison for his role in a scheme to file fraudulent tax returns using stolen identities.
At trial, while the jury deliberated, Juror No. 9 silently slipped a note to the court clerk. It read: “Will we be offered the jury protection program? This reeks of Alquaida (sic) and honestly have concerns for our safety.”
Dimitrouleas informed both sides about the note and questioned Juror No. 9 about her fears. The woman reported she had not shared her concerns with her fellow jurors.
“So, this is just your personal concern?” Dimitrouleas asked.
“I’m just paranoid,” the woman replied.
Dimitrouleas then told the juror, “There’s no connection to terrorism in this case. There’s no evidence of it. There’s no indication of al Qaeda or terrorism. … Even if there was a jury protection program, this case wouldn’t qualify for it.”
He then asked Juror No. 9 if she could put aside her concerns and be fair.
“I’ll do what’s fair,” she said.
He asked her again whether she could put aside her fears “and be a fair juror for both the defendant, the government, just follow the law and base your verdict on the facts.”
After Juror No. 9 said she could, Dimitrouleas told her to return to the jury room.
Sammour’s counsel objected, saying it appeared the juror was about to cry. But Dimitrouleas said he didn’t see that at all and that he believed her when she said that she would be fair.
Wednesday’s opinion by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that trial judges have broad discretion when dealing with potential juror bias. And Dimitrouleas did not abuse his discretion when he refused to declare a mistrial or excuse Juror No. 9 from the jury, the court said.
“Sammour quibbles with the questions the district court asked and the credibility determination it made, but the district court is expert in these matters,” Judge Bill Pryor wrote. “It interacts with jurors every day (we never do) and it was present when the juror answered its questions (we were not).”
On appeal, Sammour argued that Dimitrouleas should have questioned the other jurors individually to make sure they did not have fears about al Qaeda.
“But such an approach could have backfired by raising concerns in the minds of the jurors that were not there before,” Pryor wrote.