Federal drug trial to begin

Rashad Muhammad

Entertainment promoter Rashad Muhammad finally appears set for trial on marijuana smuggling charges after nearly three years of confinement, legal wrangling and lawyer swapping.

A federal jury has been picked and Muhammad's trial is slated to begin in early May. But the stakes have dramatically increased since the 40-year-old businessman was arrested in August 2008.

North Charleston police initially accused Muhammad of trafficking nearly 500 pounds of marijuana into the city from Arizona. Since that time, however, federal prosecutors have tacked on allegations of money laundering, conspiracy and firearms violations. The total amount of marijuana he is accused of importing now stands at more than 1,000 kilos.

One government witness alone told investigators that he sold Muhammad as much as 10,000 pounds of the weed between 1999 and 2004, according to court documents.

All this puts Muhammad in the running for a sentence of 25 years to life in prison if he is convicted on all counts.

Prior to his arrest, Muhammad billed himself as a savvy entertainment promoter active in Lowcountry charitable work. He donated school supplies to underprivileged kids, helped Hurricane Katrina victims and hosted Thanksgiving dinners for the needy.

Authorities, however, said this was a carefully cultivated front designed to mask the illicit activities of a master drug runner. If so, that all unraveled with the August 2008 seizure of nearly 500 pounds of marijuana and several guns.

Some of the marijuana was found in a crashed van tied to Muhammad, the rest in an Air Park Road office building that was home to his entertainment company, a Masonic lodge over which he presided and a colorectal cancer foundation he started, North Charleston police said.

Since his initial indictment in December 2008, Muhammad's lawyers have flooded the court with motions aimed at suppressing evidence, dismissing charges and springing him from jail. These attempts have largely been unsuccessful. And Muhammad, whom the government considers a flight risk, has repeatedly been denied the opportunity to post bail.

Most recently, Muhammad's lawyer, Russell Mace of Myrtle Beach, sought to have the case tossed entirely, arguing that Muhammad had been denied his right to a speedy trial. Federal prosecutors countered that much of the delay was caused by Muhammad's legal maneuvering and switching attorneys. Mace, on the case since July, is the sixth attorney to represent Muhammad since 2008.

U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Michael Duffy agreed with the government and shot down Muhammad's request on Thursday.

The Goose Creek man still has several supporters in the community, some of whom regularly attend his court appearances. They are quick to note his prior good works and question the strength of the government's case.

Among other things, they point to missing surveillance video that purportedly captured the drug shipment arriving at Muhammad's offices in August 2008. That video feed, which came from a pole-mounted camera set up by federal agents, set in motion the events that led to the marijuana seizure that night. Though agents were monitoring the camera that night, a malfunction reportedly kept the footage from being recorded and no record of it exists.

"They don't even have their simple things together," said Brenda Peart, a friend of Muhammad's family. "For the case to be taking this long, something's just not right."

Federal prosecutors declined to comment for this story, but they show no outward signs of worry about their case. If anything, the delay in getting to trial appears to have helped their efforts. In September, for instance, they located an alleged supplier of Muhammad under indictment in Illinois. The man, along with another marijuana supplier, provided crucial details that helped prosecutors charge Muhammad with smuggling thousands, rather than hundreds, of kilos of marijuana, according to court documents.

Muhammad could still have some surprises up his sleeve. For one, he is likely to challenge allegations that he was behind the wheel of the marijuana-filled van that crashed after a chase with police the night his offices were raided.

There was no one with the van when police found it crashed after 11 that night, but authorities have said an eyewitness and DNA evidence ties Muhammad to the vehicle.

During Thursday's hearing, however, the two sides discussed a pair of defense witnesses who reportedly plan to testify that they were with Muhammad at a Masonic function the very next morning in Harrisburg, Pa.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Modica told the judge that Muhammad had airline tickets to Harrisburg that night but never used them.

So the question becomes: How could he crash a van at 11 p.m. and be 650 miles away the next morning? Prosecutors want to speak with those witnesses to find out exactly when Muhammad arrived in Harrisburg and whether he could have driven all night to pull off an alibi journey.

However he fares at trial, the case has clearly taken a toll on Muhammad, his brother Gary Kelley of New York said. During his nearly three years behind bars, Muhammad has lost his home, his business and his ability to provide for his wife and four children. His family has struggled waiting for him to go to trial, Kelley said.

"All we are asking for is some due process here," he said. "This has been a really long, drawn-out hardship for the family."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556.