Ahead of the Curve

How Rachel May Zysk landed a major terrorism case before even landing her J.D.

Published in 2010 Florida Rising Stars — June 2010

Rachel May Zysk was a third-year Stetson Law School student when she got pulled into one of the nation’s most publicized terrorism cases, U.S. v. Al-Arian, et al.

The case centered on Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a University of South Florida computer engineering professor known for his outspoken political beliefs, and three co-defendants, including Hatem Fariz. All were charged with supporting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

In the fall of 2004, while working as an intern in the Middle District Public Defender’s Office, Zysk joined a five-member trial team representing Fariz, a local businessman who ran a medical clinic in Tampa. “My boss put together sort of a dream team, with me at the bottom,” she says. “We had Wadie Said, whose father was the leading Palestinian authority in the world before his death. Then there were two of us grunts, with me being by far the youngest.”

After passing the Bar in early 2005, she joined the team full time. “I did everything—anything that anyone asked,” she says. “It could be writing motions, researching, counting copies. We’d get to the office at 7 a.m. and work until 10 or 11 o’clock at night.”

The effort paid off. That December, U.S. District Court Judge James Moody delivered a string of not guilty and mistried counts to all four defendants. “It was really an overwhelming feeling,” she says. “I think the U.S. Attorney’s Office expected a much different result.”

Fariz eventually reached a plea agreement on the remaining charges that the jury could not agree on. He pleaded guilty to providing nonviolent services to a terrorist group and was sentenced to 37 months—the low end of the sentencing range—in the Federal Correctional Complex.

“I believe the truth came out at trial,” says Zysk. “[But] Hatem had to decide whether to put himself and his family through the ordeal of another trial. Hatem made the decision that was best for him and his family.”

Now at Carlton Fields, Zysk represents defendants charged with various crimes, ranging from minor juvenile offenses to major federal white-collar charges to a death penalty case she’s handling pro bono as part of a team. “It reminds me of the terrorism case to the extent that the stakes are so high,” she says. “The client has claimed innocence for more than 25 years. We’re in the final stages of what we can possibly do.” Zysk declined to name the client.

Still, nothing on her docket has attracted as much publicity as the Al-Arian trial. That USF professor agreed to plead guilty to one nonviolent charge as part of a plea deal; he was sentenced to 57 months in prison.

“At the time, I couldn’t quite grasp the grander implications of the case,” says Zysk, “but I knew I was involved in a piece of history.”

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