One thing I learned during seven years as a reporter based in federal court was that for defendants, there is no such thing as a mixed verdict. The penalties and the judges imposing them were usually severe enough that a conviction on just one count was enough to ruin the defendant's life.I saw this most dramatically in the trial of a group of radicals charged in the early 1980s with a series of armed robberies, including a fatal assault on a Brink's armored car. When the verdict at federal court in Manhattan showed that the jury rejected much of the prosecution's case, a defense attorney shouted out jubilantly, "It's a defeat for the government!" But not really - her client was later sentenced to 40 years in prison on the two counts the jury found the defendant guilty on.Most news accounts of the verdict for Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa made the same mistake; they emphasized the acquittal and tended to overlook the implications of the conviction on one count of conspiracy. As a Washington Post headline put it: "Terror Detainee Largely Acquitted." We'll find out what being "largely acquitted" means when Judge Lewis Kaplan sentences Ghailani - who faces up to life in prison for his conviction for conspiring to destroy government buildings and property.Bloomberg News got it straight by focusing first on the conviction on one count and then on the acquittal on 284 charges. The Wall Street Journal did the same.But for the most part, major news organizations rushed to frame the verdict in political, rather than legal, terms. Fox News was first out of the gate, with Charles Krauthammer declaring moments after the verdict that "this is a huge embarrassment to the administration."That remains to be seen.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.