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Jury al-Qaida Remark Didn’t Affect Tax Trial

(CN) - A Muslim convict was not discriminated against when a juror at his identity theft trial wrote a note saying that his case "reeks of" al-Qaida, the 11th Circuit ruled.

Convicted income tax fraudster Nael Sammour's appeal was heard in the Atlanta-based appeals court, where a three-judge panel last week dismissed his claim that he was denied a fair trial when one juror expressed her written fears that the Arab-Muslim defendant had ties to terrorism.

Deliberations had just begun in Sammour's 2013 trial for aggravated identity theft when, according to court records, Juror No. 9 surreptitiously slipped a Florida Southern District court clerk a note reading: "Will we be offered jury protection program? This reeks of Alquaida [sic] and honestly have concerns for our safety."

After informing both the prosecution and defense of the note, the trial court overruled Sammour's motion for a mistrial and chose instead to question the juror privately.

According to court records, the conversation assuaged any suspicions that the content of her note might bias her opinion of Sammour's legal fate.

The woman assured the court that she had not told any of her fellow jurors of her worries, reportedly saying, "I didn't want to sway the rest of the jury." She also pledged to "put aside this concern and be fair" for the remainder of deliberations.

The trial court found her promises credible enough to allow her to continue on the jury, particularly because "her concerns did not appear to be that serious to begin with," according to last week's ruling.

"I'm just paranoid," she allegedly told the court when they questioned what she'd written in the note.

Court officials allayed the woman's fears by reminding her that neither Sammour's convictions nor his ensuing trial had any connection to terrorism, the ruling says.

Sammour, 55, was on trial for allegedly stealing at least 50 identities as part of a tax return theft scheme wherein he and several others obtained the names and Social Security numbers of people who had not yet filed tax returns.

All of the fake names he used belonged to real people, whose names he had altered by omitting or changing a few letters in an attempt to avoid detection. Several of the victims testified at his trial, stating that they were told when they tried to file tax returns that someone had already filed in their name.

After the government had issued the tax returns in question, Sammour's job was to get them cashed by procuring falsified identification documents in the names of his victims.

To facilitate his fraud, he "needed someone with connections to check-cashing stores willing to look the other way," court records show.

He thought he'd found his man in the form of "an interested check-casher" who paid him for various U.S. Treasury checks in 2012, but his new partner was really an undercover federal agent sent by the IRS to thwart his scheme.

Sammour was arrested in January 2013 after twice having met IRS Agent Ahmed Qaqish at South Florida eateries, giving him fraudulent checks to cash in the names of two stolen identities.

During these meetings, Sammour "revealed...a sophisticated understanding of the tax-fraud scheme," though he later "downplayed his culpability" during trial proceedings by claiming that "somebody just talked me into it," according to court records.

Qaqish recorded his 2012 meetings with Sammour, which were conducted in Arabic, and replayed and translated for the jury. They were the sole reference to Sammour's ethnicity during trial proceedings, according to last week's 11th Circuit ruling.

Sammour balked when the jury delivered a guilty verdict for both counts of aggravated identity theft and he was sentenced to 115 months in prison, the maximum allowed under federal guidelines.

His appeal followed, in which he made seven arguments about the handling of his trial and sentencing, the accusation of juror bias chief among them.

On March 16, Judge William Pryor of the 11th Circuit roundly rejected Sammour's argument that the trial court abused its discretion in questioning Juror 9 about the al-Qaida note and allowing her to continue to serve on the jury.

The judge ceded to the trial court's expertise in handling jurors, finding that it had dealt with more than enough jurors to render judges experts in ensuring impartiality amongst jury members.

Legal precedent allows trial courts "broad discretion" in dealing with jurors, the 29-page ruling states. Due in large part to their "superior vantage point" of the habits and behaviors of jury members, they are in the best position to make these judgment calls, the opinion said.

"The district court is in a better position to evaluate credibility, as well as 'the mood at trial and the predilections of the jury,'" Pryor wrote, citing precedent.

Pryor found that the Southern Florida Federal Court did its due diligence in questioning Juror 9 for potential bias and "sufficiently 'quelled' her fears, which she admitted were a product of her own idiosyncratic paranoia."

Sammour raised suspicions that other jurors may have shared Juror 9's fears, but mere speculation is not enough to win a juror bias appeal, the 11th Circuit ruled.

To prevail, the defendant would have had to prove "based on a cold record" that the trial court incorrectly deemed the woman fit to stay on the jury. Pryor found no such clear evidence in Sammour's appeal.

"Because the district court did not clearly err in finding that Juror 9 was unbiased, it did not abuse its discretion by refusing to declare a mistrial or dismiss her from the jury," the judge wrote. Nor did it need to remind Juror 9 not to share her fears with the other jurors. The whole tenor of its questioning informed Juror 9 that she should keep her concerns to herself, and Juror 9 acknowledged that she understood why when she said she 'didn't want to sway the rest of the jury.'"

Sammour also argued unsuccessfully in his appeal that the prosecution failed to prove that he stole the identities of more than 50 victims. The judge ruled that evidence supported the prosecution's claims.

He further contended that his sentence was wrongfully increased based on the court's inflation of his criminal history. Pryor shot down that claim, too, finding that Sammour's sentence was within the guideline range.

Sammour is represented by Miami attorney Richard Docobo, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Anton originally prosecuted the case against Sammour, according to an FBI press release. He also did not return a Friday afternoon call seeking comment.

Judge Joel Dubina of the 11th Circuit and Eastern Pennsylvania U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno, sitting by designation, also heard the appeal.

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