By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008
MIAMI -- The case of the "Liberty City Seven" stymied jurors. After a three-month trial late last year, they deadlocked on nearly all of the charges regarding the purported plot by several men to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago.
The one thing jurors could agree upon, however, was that one of the men, Lyglenson Lemorin, 33, was not guilty.
"I was excited," Lemorin said of his reaction on the December day that the verdict was announced. "I wanted to see my family."
Yet more than two months after his acquittal on charges of supporting terrorism, Lemorin remains incarcerated, and U.S. immigration officials are moving to deport him to Haiti, which he left more than 20 years ago. Officials are asking an administrative judge to order his deportation based on the same charges that the jury dismissed.
The government's effort to punish Lemorin despite the acquittal is drawing fire from his attorneys and some legal observers as an attempt to seek retribution in a high-profile case that prosecutors lost after a fair trial.
Even the jury foreman -- who said he had been willing to convict some of Lemorin's co-defendants -- said the move to deport Lemorin seems unfair.
"It's kind of outrageous that the guy was cleared after we spent three months at trial, and now they're continuing to go after him," said Jeff Agron, 46, an educator. "They're getting a second bite at the apple. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
Caught in the middle is Lemorin, a father of two, a Haitian immigrant who came here as a child and is a permanent legal resident of the United States.
"It's not just double jeopardy -- it's sour grapes," said Lemorin's criminal defense attorney, Joel DeFabio. "It's a mind set at the Department of Justice: 'We don't lose -- and if we can get you another way, we will.' "
Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Lemorin "will get due process."
Legally, there is nothing to bar the government from pursuing immigration sanctions against Lemorin, experts said, though such action is rare after an acquittal. The immigration charges are a civil matter, and a judge will apply a less strict standard of evidence to the charges that were brought at the criminal trial.
"This is one of those unfortunate instances where common sense and constitutional law diverge," said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University who has followed the case.
David A. Martin, a University of Virginia law professor who served as general counsel at the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the late 1990s, said that "the government is perfectly within its legal rights to go ahead in two different forums even after they've lost in one." He added, "Whether it's a sound use of prosecutorial authority is a much tougher question."
Martin said being removed from one's adopted country, though it is a civil penalty, can seem little different from some of the criminal sanctions Lemorin has so far eluded.
"Obviously, for someone who's had a green card and could spend the rest of their lives here, deportation feels the same as a criminal sentence," he said.
"He's no more a Haitian than the Good Humor man," said Charles Kuck, a lawyer representing Lemorin in immigration court.
Lemorin and his six co-defendants were arrested in June 2006 in a case that Justice Department officials said demonstrated the threat of "homegrown" terrorism.
All of the men had been affiliated with a fringe religious group, the Moorish Science Temple, a sect that combines elements of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. They operated out of a ramshackle building in Liberty City, one of this city's poorest neighborhoods.
Their leader, Narseal Batiste, known as Prince Manna, proselytized on street corners, sometimes carrying a staff and wearing a white turban.
"It was on our spiritual journey that we got involved with Narseal," said Lemorin's wife, Charlene. "He was just another way of learning the Bible and the Koran. We always read interesting books."
From the immigration detention center in Georgia this month, Lyglenson Lemorin described himself as a Christian, not an Islamic fundamentalist. "I pray every night -- that's one of the main things that helps me," he said by phone. "There's a great God out there."
During the investigation, two confidential informants working with the FBI posed to Batiste that they had al-Qaeda connections.
To one of the informants, Batiste outlined a far-fetched plan to topple the Sears Tower and create a tsunami in Lake Michigan, a scheme he would later describe at trial as a way of eliciting contributions from al-Qaeda.
The primary piece of evidence against Lemorin is videotape showing one of the informants leading him and his co-defendants in an oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda. He said he was misled about what was going on.
"I regret that I went along with taking the so-called oath," Lemorin said from Georgia. "It was right after that, I left."
He stopped going to the group's meetings. He and Charlene moved to Atlanta, where they took jobs at an Abercrombie and Fitch at a mall.
"He kind of distanced himself from the group," noted Agron, the jury foreman; it was a key factor in the decision to acquit him.
Roughly two months after he and his wife left Miami, however, Lemorin was arrested.
Months later, Charlene gave birth prematurely to his third child, but the baby died. Charlene now has kidney disease and is awaiting a transplant.
"The children wonder whether they will ever see their father again," she said. "It just doesn't seem right."
Asked about the most difficult part of his incarceration, Lemorin said: "I just feel like I should be there for my family. They've been going through a lot."