By Julienne Gage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008
MIAMI, April 16 -- A federal judge in Miami declared a second mistrial Wednesday in the case of six men accused of plotting to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower, and attack other targets, when a second jury failed to reach a verdict on the charges.
The decision is a setback for the Bush administration, which had touted the case as an example of the government's ability to prevent terrorist attacks but has failed to win convictions in two attempts.
U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard scheduled a hearing for next Wednesday at which the government is to announce whether it will seek to retry the men.
The defendants have widely been referred to as the Liberty City Seven because authorities say the men originally charged were conducting their activities in a warehouse in Liberty City, a predominately black, low-income neighborhood in northeastern Miami.
In December, after nine days of deliberation, a jury in Miami acquitted one defendant, Lyglenson Lemorin, of all charges and said it was deadlocked on the charges against the group's leader, Narseal Batiste, 33, who led a sect known as the Moorish Science Temple. It also deadocked on five others, leading Lenard to declare a mistrial.
The other defendants were Patrick Abraham, Burson Augustine, Rothschild Augustine, Stanley Grant Phanor and Naudimar Herrera.
The second trial, which ended Wednesday after 13 days of deliberation, proved equally fruitless. The prosecution had based its case on hundreds of FBI audio and video recordings, including one that showed the men pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. The oath-taking ceremony was led by an FBI informant, known as Brother Mohammed, posing as an al-Qaeda operative.
But Batiste testified that he was merely trying to con the informant out of $50,000 that was to be used to finance the "plot." Further, the government was not able to prove that the group had any weapons, ammunition or explosives on them at the time of their arrest in June 2006.
So far, the government has had a mixed record with regard to domestic terrorism trials. It had gained some convictions such as that of Jose Padilla, the former Chicago gang member who was found guilty in August 2007 of participating in a South Florida-based al-Qaeda support cell. There have been some notable setbacks, including the mistrial declared last October after a Dallas jury deadlocked on charges that the leaders of the Holy Land Foundation, at one time the nation's largest Islamic charity, had funneled millions of dollars to terrorists.
Local law experts and civil rights advocates in Miami weren't surprised by this second mistrial.
"I think it shows how tarnished the government's credibility is here in our community," said Bruce J. Winick, a professor at the University of Miami law school. "I think this was a case of premature prosecution. They should have surveilled more carefully and for longer to see if this plot was really going anywhere or if it was simply a bunch of poor unfortunates rising to the flavorful bait of someone who's spreading around $50,000."
Oath-taking to a terrorist organization is relevant evidence, but in and of itself, it is an act protected by the First Amendment, said Winick, explaining that the jury had to decide if the defendants would have come up with such a plot on their own. "It was like a little movie put together by a government informant."