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Judge Throws Out Perjury Charges Against Jordanian Man

Aired April 30, 2002 - 13:16   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Out of New York now, we are hearing that a case has been essentially thrown out against a 21-year-old Jordanian man picked up in San Diego shortly after the attacks of 9/11. Deborah Feyerick has been working there. She joins us now live from New York with more. What have we found out, Deborah?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bill, this was a college student who was arrested days after the 9/11 attacks. Prosecutors saying that they found his name in the car of two of the hijackers. Initially, Osama Awadallah said he didn't know the two men. Later, he changed his story, saying he had met them on several occasions.

Well, just a short while ago, a federal judge threw out the perjury charges against him, saying that Osama Awadallah was unlawfully arrested. The judge also said the federal material witness statute doesn't give prosecutors the green light to hold someone just because that person may be a material witness, and a number of men who are being detained, are being held in jails right now on that very statute. So, this is a big deal.

Now, lawyers for a number of the men in custody really have been arguing this point for months, that several men are being held unlawfully. Awadallah's lawyer, however, says that the judge's opinion means that his client, in his words, can get on with his life, though he does point out that it's a shame that this man had to spend three months in jail.

The U.S. attorney in Manhattan issued a statement saying that we believe the court's opinions are wrong on the facts and the law. Right now, they're figuring out the best way that they can appeal. And I did speak to one defense lawyer asking him what does this means for everybody else who is now in jail. He said, well, although the judge's ruling is very persuasive, it doesn't necessarily set out any sort of precedent. So if another lawyer wants to bring the same argument for his client, the judge -- this will -- this is something that will have to be done on a case-by-case basis to determine whether others are going to be let out of jail. The judge in this particular case also saying that the evidence against Osama Awadallah also has to be tossed out. So for him, at least for now, this is over -- Bill.

HEMMER: And, Deborah, let me try and sort through this. Does it appear like this is a procedural matter, a mistake in procedure, because as I read some of these reports, they're suggesting that federal law does not authorize the detention of material witnesses for a grand jury investigation. If that's the case, was it a mistake based on law?

FEYERICK: Yes. Basically, the government was saying that in this particular instance, there was a statute that they could use to keep this guy in case they needed him in order to testify. And the judge said, you know, that is not good enough reason. You cannot hold this man just because you want him to testify before a grand jury and just because you think either he's a flight risk or maybe even that there may be additional charges that you can bring against him.

Basically, the government has been holding people on two sets: either because of an INS violation, which is one thing. The other is this material witness statute. And so that's -- those are the two grounds on which they have been holding people who have been detained.

HEMMER: And, Deborah, I want to pick your brain a little more on this. Go back to your previous answer, when you said that you asked if other cases may or may not be affected. Was there any indication that there are other men in custody who might fall under a similar issue or a similar standing?

FEYERICK: Yes, that is, in fact, the point. There are some people that we know who are being detained based on a federal -- based on this particular statute. And so, their lawyers are going to either have to begin filing motions to try to get their guys out of jail or they're just going to wait. And so, what may happen is that a number of other people who are detained in the future may be detained on something like an INS violation, because that is -- you can hold somebody on that really indefinitely.

HEMMER: OK. One more thing, Deborah. If the U.S. attorneys are saying they believe the judge's decision is wrong, one would assume they are going to fight it. Do we understand just yet how they can fight this legally?

FEYERICK: No, and that's what they're trying to find out as well. They do want to appeal. They just don't know the best way to go about doing this. The attorney general is supposed to speak later on in the day. We don't know whether in fact he is going to make any sort of a comment on this, but the judge's ruling, a pretty tough ruling against the government.

HEMMER: Deborah, thanks. We'll be back with you when we get more. Deborah Feyerick again working that story in New York City.

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