A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday again freed one of the Hanafi Muslims convicted in the 1977 takeover of three Washington buildings, saying this time that the original prison sentence he imposed was "so infected with errors" that to carry it out would constitute a miscarriage of justice.
Judge Nicholas Nunzio originally sentenced Hilvan Finch, also known as Abdul Hamid, to 36 to 108 years in prison for his part in the May 1977 takeover of the B'nai B'rith headquarters here, part of a siege in which the District Building and the Islamic Center were held.
Nunzio subsequently decided that the sentence had been too harsh, and yesterday's action marked the fourth time he has reduced Finch's sentence and ordered his release.
For several years he has been battling prosecutors, who want to see Finch serve out the original sentence, and the D.C. Court of Appeals, which twice reversed orders by Nunzio that Finch be released. Nunzio withdrew a third order freeing Finch after an argument in a similar case failed with the appeals court.
After yesterday's ruling, Finch, who works as an equipment salesman, said he wanted to apologize to the former B'nai B'rith hostages. "I am certainly sorry for my involvement in it," he said, standing in the well of the courtroom used in the original trial.
Finch said he was "excited" by yesterday's decision, but he added that the history of the case is that "one minute you're happy, and the next minute you're dropping tears."
Nunzio yesterday cited numerous facts about Finch's life that he said he did not know at the time of the original trial and sentencing.
He said he is convinced that Finch failed to divulge this information out of fear that he and his family, along with the family of his original lawyer, would be killed by a Hanafi Muslim leader.
Citing reams of testimony and letters in support of his decision, Nunzio pointed to later statements from some of the persons who had been held at B'nai B'rith headquarters and from detectives that Finch had attempted to aid some of the hostages, that Finch had been a "virtual prisoner" at the Hanafi leader's home and did not know where he was going or what was happening when he arrived at the B'nai B'rith building, and that when Finch met the Hanafi leader at 16 and moved to Washington he was confused and vulnerable, searching for a father figure to replace one who had abused him and his sister.
U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova reacted angrily to Finch's release and said the government will appeal Nunzio's decision, effectively placing the question of Finch's freedom once again in the hands of the appeals court.
Finch's new lawyers, Timothy Junkin and Greta Van Susteren, said earlier that all other legal arguments had been exhausted.
"This is the wrong legal symbol to send," said diGenova, citing the Justice Department's efforts this week to prosecute terrorists accused of hijacking an Italian cruise ship and killing an American tourist.
Finch was one of seven Hanafis who seized the Rhode Island Avenue headquarters of B'nai B'rith, a major Jewish organization, on March 9, 1977.
Others took over the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW and the District Building, where a reporter was shot to death and Mayor Marion Barry (then a City Council member) and two other persons were wounded.
The first time Nunzio released Finch, the Court of Appeals ruled that the judge had acted after expiration of the 120-day period in which he had jurisdiction over the case. After Nunzio ruled that Finch had been denied due process because his lawyer had filed the request for reduction of sentence on the 118th day of the 120-period, the appeals court reversed that decision as well.
In yesterday's decision, Nunzio ruled that there were "errors of fact of a fundamental character which rendered Finch's sentencing irregular and invalid." Nunzio then vacated the original sentence and resentenced Finch to eight to 24 years in prison, suspending all but the three years Finch has served and placing him on probation for five years.