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Trial nears for student in explosives case

For more than eight months, Youssef Samir Megahed has been in jail, a wild detour from the seemingly innocuous road trip to see Atlantic Coast beaches that he says he and a friend were enjoying.
Explosives Arrest
Youssef Samir Megahed, 21, stands as his co-defendant Ahmed Abdellatif Sherif Mohamed, 24, looks on during a bond hearing last August. The two Egyptian students from the University of South Florida were indicted on charges of carrying explosive materials across states lines. Mary Ann Chastain / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For more than eight months, Youssef Samir Megahed has been in jail, a wild detour from the seemingly innocuous road trip to see Atlantic Coast beaches that he says he and a friend were enjoying.

The U.S. government views the trip differently, accusing Megahed and Ahmed Abdellatif Sherif Mohamed of transporting explosives materials in the trunk of their car as they traveled through South Carolina.

While the pair sat side-by-side during the traffic stop that led to their arrests, Megahed is scheduled to be the first to face a federal jury when his trial is scheduled to begin on Monday. He is charged with illegally transporting explosives and illegally possessing destructive devices.

However, a judge's ruling Friday to throw out some evidence against him could delay the trial.

Fears of a terrorist motive
The arrests of Megahed and Mohamed sparked fears of a terrorist motive since they were stopped roughly seven miles from a naval weapons facility. But the government has not indicated the men were planning an attack, and only Mohamed faces terrorism-related charges. Both have pleaded not guilty.

An engineering student at the University of South Florida, Megahed was nearing graduation when he and Mohamed left Tampa last August. The pair claim they were on a sightseeing trip and were relying on GPS for directions and to help them find Murphy Gas Stations so they could buy cheap gas with gift cards.

Berkeley County, S.C., sheriff's deputy James Lamar Blakely stopped the pair for speeding near Charleston and has said he grew suspicious in part because he saw Megahed hurriedly slam a laptop computer shut.

A search of the car uncovered bullets and items in the trunk of the car that were originally called pipe bombs. Attorneys for the students say the items were four PVC pipes containing a mixture of sugar, potassium nitrate and cat litter, which along with fuses would be used for homemade, low-grade fireworks.

An FBI laboratory analysis determined the items were a "pyrotechnic mixture" that burned but didn't explode in tests.

Prosecutors have written in court filings argued that if the materials were differently packed, they could have exploded. Both sides have squabbled over whether the components meet the government's definition of explosives.

"There's doubt," said Adam Allen, a federal public defender representing Megahed. Prosecutors declined to comment on the case. Allen also contends that Megahed, 22, did not know about the items in the trunk.

Defense attorneys have repeatedly attempted to dismiss evidence.

Trial could be delayed
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday ruled that various videos of armed rockets found on Megahed's home computer were presented too late by prosecutors to be used at his trial.

Late Friday, prosecutors filed a notice of appeal, meaning the trial could be put on hold.

Megahed's attorneys have also asked a judge to throw out evidence retrieved from three computers seized at the home of Megahed's parents. It is unclear what information the computers contain, but defense attorneys wrote in a motion that authorities did not have consent to search them.

The case is being tried in Tampa because it is where both men lived and attended school.

Allen downplayed the importance of separate trials for the students, saying that they wanted to prove Megahed's innocence "as soon as possible." He faces 20 years in prison if convicted of both charges.

But the separation will keep jurors deciding Megahed's fate from hearing about evidence and testimony regarding terrorism-related charges that Mohamed faces.

The 26-year-old, who has also been jailed since August, is accused of making a video that demonstrates how to turn remote-controlled devices into bomb detonators. The video was found on a laptop seized during the South Carolina traffic stop and had been posted onto YouTube.

Gas receipts and computer evidence
A grand jury also indicted Mohamed on additional charges in April, including providing material support to terrorism, carrying a destructive device relating to that support of terrorism, and two counts of possessing a firearm in violation of his visa rules. His trial is scheduled for July.

Allen declined to discuss the strategy of Megahed's defense, but court filings indicate that gas receipts and information downloaded from a GPS machine in the car will likely be used to corroborate the students' story.

Charles Rose, a professor at the Stetson University School of Law who has been following the case, said much of the government's evidence against Megahed seems circumstantial.

"They're going to struggle with showing that he's something more than just a guy who was in the car," Rose said.

But he said prosecutors filed additional charges to ensure a conviction, which could be used to compel Megahed to testify against his friend.

The evidence already released seems to point to the college students being foolish, but not necessarily criminals, Rose said. "This will end like almost every terrorist case since 9-11 — with a fizzle and not a bang."