Liberty City 7 trial tilting toward mistrial
(Miami Herald) The terrorism trial against seven Miami men described by the Bush administration as being as ”dangerous” as al Qaeda appeared headed for a meltdown Monday, when jurors said they were still deadlocked over charges of plotting to destroy Chicago’s Sears Tower and FBI offices.
But a federal judge ordered the panel to continue deliberating the fate of the so-called Liberty City 7 through Tuesday, when they return to federal court in Miami.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard denied a defense motion for a mistrial, instead calling the 12-member panel into court and reading a jury instruction designed to bring the case to a resolution.
”It is your duty to agree upon a verdict if you can do so,” Lenard told the racially mixed jury of six men and six women, in a so-called Allen charge. They have been debating the group’s guilt or innocence for six days, but first hinted of their struggle to reach any agreement in a note issued last Thursday.
Jurors sent a second note Monday indicating they are unable to agree on any verdict. Lenard has refused to publicly release the contents of the notes or allow them to be read in court.
Defense lawyers opposed giving the Allen charge instructions to the jury, but Lenard said she did not find them to be ”unduly coercive.” Federal prosecutors took no position on whether a mistrial should be declared.
The defendants — all minority men in their 20s and 30s who were arrested in June 2006 on four terrorism-related conspiracy offenses – — face up to 70 years in prison.
If the judge ultimately determines the jury is deadlocked, she would declare a mistrial, which would be a significant defeat for the government. The U.S. attorney’s office, after discussions with the Justice Department, would decide whether to retry the seven defendants, who are being held at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami.
The government’s record in terrorism cases has been decidedly mixed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — a grab-bag of convictions, acquittals and mistrials.
In October, a federal judge in Dallas declared a mistrial for four former leaders of a Muslim charity charged with funding terrorism. A fifth defendant, the chairman of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, was acquitted of most charges against him.
Some legal observers and pundits have taken a cynical view of the government’s case against the Liberty City 7 — mainly because the Justice Department publicized it as a major crackdown against homegrown terrorism.
As news of the Miami men’s alleged plot of destruction raced across the country in June 2006, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales declared, “homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al Qaeda.”
Yet the case of the seven is strikingly different from another high-profile terrorism case linked to al Qaeda that ended last August in Miami with the conviction of a former enemy combatant dubbed “the dirty bomber.”
In the case of Jose Padilla, there was evidence of the former Broward County resident training overseas with al Qaeda and two other defendants providing ”material support” such as money, equipment and personnel for its terrorism network abroad.
The Liberty City 7 trial began with jury selection in late September.
At trial, prosecutors tried to prove that the group’s mission was to spread ”chaos and confusion” the United States by blowing up Chicago’s Sears Tower and federal buildings in Miami and other cities.
Defense lawyers countered that the group’s ringleader, Narseal Batiste, and his six followers were merely trying to con thousands of dollars out of an FBI informant posing as an al Qaeda operative and that they had no intention of carrying out such a plot. They argued that Batiste and his followers were entrapped by the FBI informant, who was directed by the FBI to lay out most of the fictitious al Qaeda terrorism plot.
In the alleged conspiracy, it was Batiste, a former Chicago resident, who chose the Sears Tower as a target, according to court evidence. But it was the FBI-directed informant who introduced the idea of destroying government buildings in Miami and four other cities.
The strongest evidence against Batiste and his followers: In March 2006, the FBI videotaped them taking an oath to al Qaeda that was administered by the bureau’s informant, an Arabic man who went by the name Brother Mohammad. Some of the men later took video footage of target sites in Miami-Dade County, including the FBI building in North Miami Beach.
The jurors began their deliberations a week ago after two days of closing arguments in late November that focused on Batiste. He is a father of four who lived in North Miami, ran a struggling construction business and tried to start a local chapter of the Moorish Science Temple in a warehouse called ”The Embassy” in Liberty City.
The religion embraces the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths — but prosecutors portrayed Batiste and his followers as wannabe terrorists bent on breaking away from the United States.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Arango said during closing arguments that the Liberty City Seven were “trying to make their mark . . . on a mission that would be just as good or greater than 9/11.”
An attorney for Batiste argued that the FBI entrapped her client and his men into committing a ”fabricated crime.” Ana Jhones called the government’s conduct “outrageous.”
The other defendants’ lawyers tried to distance their clients from Batiste, suggesting they were not in the loop as far as his discussions with the FBI informant. At the same time, they backed Batiste’s defense that he was trying to trick the informant into giving him $50,000.
The challenge for federal prosecutors was proving the defendants’ criminal intentions to join the fledgling terrorism conspiracy — one that an FBI deputy director ultimately acknowledged was more “aspirational than operational.”
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