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San diego student connection to hijackers case mistrial { May 4 2006 }

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May 4, 2006
Judge Declares Mistrial in Case of Man Who Knew 9/11 Hijackers

A judge in Manhattan federal court declared a mistrial today after a jury reported that it was deadlocked in the case of Osama Awadallah, a Jordanian college student accused of lying to a federal grand jury about his relationship with two Sept. 11 hijackers.

The jurors sent a note to Judge Shira A. Scheindlin indicating that further deliberations would be fruitless. One juror was holding out for a not guilty plea. Prosecutors then requested that Judge Scheindlin set a date for a new trial as soon as possible.

Mr. Awadallah's lawyer, Jesse Berman, said the mistrial "shows that there are doubts to the government's case," according to The Associated Press.

If convicted, Mr. Awadallah, 25, faces a maximum sentence of five years on each of two counts of perjury, as well as deportation. He has waited free on bail for much of the time since he was charged as his fiercely contested case made its way through the courts.

In recent years, Mr. Awadallah has been a student at San Diego State University, where he is scheduled to graduate this month.

The mistrial brings to a close one more chapter in a four-and-half-year legal battle in which prosecutors said Mr. Awadallah lied when he testified under oath at an October 2001 grand jury hearing that he did not know one of the hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar, and denied having written his name in a school notebook before conceding in a later hearing that he had met Mr. Midhar.

Mr. Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, another hijacker, had been living in San Diego until about a year before they boarded American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Mr. Awadallah was arrested on Sept. 21, 2001, after F.B.I. agents found a scrap of paper with the name "Osama" and Mr. Awadallah's old phone number in a car that Mr. Hazmi had left at Dulles International Airport, near Washington.

In the trial, Mr. Berman painted a very different picture, that of a young immigrant, 21 at the time of the attacks, with limited English, disoriented after nearly three weeks of solitary confinement and with no reason to mislead the grand jury.

"We're not saying this gave him license to lie," Mr. Berman said. The defendant, he said, was "exhausted and confused."

In the trial held in a courtroom less than half a mile from ground zero, the prosecutors argued that Mr. Awadallah had lied, presenting transcripts of his testimony and a detailed chronology of how his account had changed during several hearings and interviews with law enforcement.

Mr. Awadallah has never been charged with conspiring in the 9/11 attacks or knowing about them in advance.

In his first grand jury appearance, Mr. Awadallah repeatedly denied knowing anyone named Khalid. But prosecutors showed him an examination booklet they discovered at his college, in which was written: "One of the quietest people I have met is Nawaf. Another one, his name is Khalid."

Mr. Awadallah at first said that some of the handwriting was not his. When he returned to the grand jury on Oct. 15, 2001, he said that he recognized it as his writing and that on several occasions he had met a friend of Mr. Hazmi's named Khalid.

Mr. Berman argued that the first photocopy of the examination booklet that Mr. Awadallah was shown was smudged, and that reading it was all the more difficult because his client had not had access to his eyeglasses while in custody or on the witness stand.

In part what has been on trial is the government's treatment of Mr. Awadallah. After being detained as a material witness in San Diego on Sept. 21, 2001, he was held incommunicado for 20 days in maximum security solitary confinement, although he was not charged with a crime. Mr. Awadallah has said he was terrified and disoriented by a long, severe detention.

During his grand jury testimony, Mr. Awadallah was handcuffed to his chair, a practice generally reserved for potentially dangerous witnesses. His defense lawyers have argued that the shackling impeded him from leaving the room to consult with his lawyers, who were not allowed inside the grand jury room but were waiting outside.

The case was dismissed once by Judge Scheindlin, then reinstated by the appeals court. With a jury chosen and ready to sit last May, the prosecution held up the trial, accusing Judge Scheindlin of bias and filing an appeal to remove her from the case, which failed.

The same jurors were recalled, but some persuaded the judge that they could no longer serve and were replaced.

Carla Baranauckas contributed reporting for this article.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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