A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday again released convicted Hanafi Muslim Abdul Hamid, this time saying that an error on the part of Hamid's lawyer was responsible for a decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals that temporarily nullified Hamid's earlier release.
Hamid had been sentenced to 36 to 108 years in prison for his role in the March 1977 seizure of more than 100 hostages at B'nai B'rith headquarters here.
Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio ordered him freed earlier this year, contending that Hamid, also known as Hilvan Finch, had been a model prisoner and therefore his sentence should be reduced to time served. The release sparked a storm of protest from numerous former hostages and others.
A few months later, the D.C. Court of Appeals reversed Nunzio's decision, saying that the judge acted after the prescribed 120-day period in which he had formal jurisdiction over the case. Hamid, who had gone to work in New York, voluntarily returned to Washington and surrendered to the judge pending the outcome of yesterday's hearing.
Yesterday, Nunzio freed Hamid again and effectively put the decision back in the hands of the appeals court by declaring that Hamid had been denied due process because his lawyer filed the request for reduction of sentence on the 118th day of the 120-day period -- leaving the judge insufficient time to rule before the period expired.
Nunzio said he expects the U.S. Attorney's Office to appeal yesterday's ruling, and prosecutors said such a move is under consideration.
Still, the release prompted an impromptu press conference by Hamid outside the courthouse, during which he said he apologized to the Washington community, "especially to the people in B'nai B'rith to whom I've really wanted to say some things from the heart.
"There were many mitigating circumstances which were not able to be brought out at the time of the trial with regards to my participation," Hamid said. "I am very happy to have the opportunity to have all these things brought out and heard in a just manner, which I think Judge Nunzio has done. I think that he has ruled fairly and justly."
Nunzio originally released Hamid on Jan. 4, contending that Hamid's participation in the 1977 takeover was relatively small and because evidence was presented that Hamid had rehabilitated himself while serving the first few years of his term at the Lompoc federal prison in California.
Hamid was one of seven Hanafis who seized the headquarters of B'Nai B'rith, one of the nation's major Jewish service organizations, at 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW, on March 9, 1977. Five others took over the District Building downtown and the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Before the takeover ended, one reporter was shot to death, and Mayor Marion Barry (then a City Council member), a council aide and a government security guard were wounded.
Hamid's new attorneys, Timothy D. Junkin and Greta C. Van Sustern, argued in court papers that "through letters and phone calls made on his behalf, Hamid did everything in his power to ensure that his motion to reduce sentence would be ruled upon in a timely manner, so that it could be properly ruled upon. He received promises from his court-appointed lawyer that that would be done."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul L. Knight had argued to Nunzio that Hamid's original attorney, Charles F. Stow III, had merely followed the standard practice of local attorneys by waiting until close to the 120-day deadline in filing his sentence reduction request.
"Certainly if Stow followed a practice utilized by many of his colleagues," Knight argued in court papers, "it cannot be said that he was grossly incompetent."
Stow said yesterday, "I did exactly what every attorney has ever done."
Many defense lawyers interviewed yesterday acknowledged that on a regular basis they delay so their clients can build a successful record of rehabilitation in prison. Filing earlier, they argued, would deny their clients the opportunity to show favorable behavior to a judge.
Hamid has claimed that during his trial, then-Hanifi leader Hamaas Abdul Khaalis ordered each of the defendants not to assist in their defense, and that therefore no mitigating circumstances were presented on Hamid's behalf at his sentencing.
At a hearing last week, Hamid's sister, Marilyn, testified that she had repeatedly asked Stow to file the necessary court papers earlier.
Some of the former hostages have criticized Nunzio's actions as being insensitive, and at last week's hearing, several went to the courtroom hoping to testify against Hamid's release. Their request was turned down by the judge. Attempts to reach former hostages yesterday were unsuccessful.
Some lawyers yesterday said that Hamid's case could be a significant setback for prisoners. "It is going to call into serious question a lot of prior cases in which judges have reduced sentences subsequent to 120 days," said Christopher G. Hoge, a defense attorney who also participated in the 1977 Hanafi trial.