Last Thursday, Hilvan Finch, a soft-spoken, 26-year-old man who had been working at a New York City furniture store, unexpectedly walked into a D.C. Superior Court room and surrendered to a startled Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio.
It was the sort of ending few had expected in the case of this man, who as a Hanafi Muslim had participated in the taking of more than 100 hostages during the 1977 seizure of B'nai B'rith headquarters here.
In the bizarre twists and turns his case has taken since his conviction and sentencing to a minimum of 36 years in prison, Finch -- who was tried under his Muslim name, Abdul Hamid -- has persuaded Judge Nunzio to release him on the grounds that he had rehabilitated himself. And then -- just when he thought he could start a new life -- federal prosecutors persuaded a higher court to order him back to jail.
The options were simple: Return voluntarily to face the prospect of spending until the year 2013 in prison or -- as he candidly admits -- leave the country.
He chose to return.
"It may be a certain bit of naivete," Hamid said in an interview last week. "But I happen to believe that in certain situations the system works. What motivated me to come back is that I asked for a chance to prove myself.
"I would hope that anyone I asked to look at the situation could get away from looking at what the headlines said back in 1977 and look at the individual. That's essentially what I asked the judge to do, look at an individual, not the case."
The controversy that surrounded Hamid's release in January is particularly bitter because of the memories of his crime, especially among the former hostages. They remember him as a terrorist who held a gun to their heads and issued them orders, even striking one of them. Others remembers the seizure as an unbelievable horror that held the nation's capital at bay for three days.
Prosecutors have described Hamid as "a dangerous and fanatical criminal, guilty of monstrous deeds."
On the other hand is the perspective of Judge Nunzio, who presided over the Hanafi trial, then later studied, analyzed and weighed Hamid's role in the takeover, his prison record, and background before deciding to release him.
"I don't know where the justice comes in on this," said former hostage Rose S. Akman. "Letting someone out at this point in time is absolutely much too soon, much too early. No one gets rehabilitated that fast. It frightens me."
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, while five others took over the District Building downtown and the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW.
Before the Hanafis surrendered, a radio reporter was shot to death, and Mayor Marion Barry (then a City Council member), a council aide and a government security guard were wounded in a hail of gunfire at the District Building.
Hamid contends that his role in the takeover was forced upon him, that he did not realize where he was being taken when the siege began, or how serious the takeover was until he began seeing injured hostages.
"I've always felt that it was wrong from the moment I found out what was happening," Hamid told Nunzio at a recent court hearing. "I was much too passive and much too weak in character. . . . I feared for my life. . . . I'm somewhat full of reproach for myself because I feel if I had been a stronger person, I would not have found myself in that position."
Hamid said he was born in upstate New York. His father beat him so frequently, Hamid said, that he finally went to the police for help.
When he came to Washington in the early 1970s, he found a father figure in Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, leader of the Hanafis, and his family. Khaalis advised him to go to the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory school in June 1972. But after seven members of the family, including five children, were massacred by another Islamic group at the Hanafi house on 16th Street, he returned.
From then on, Hamid never left the grounds of the 16th street house, he says, until Khaalis ordered him to participate in the events that began the Hanafi takeover in 1977.
During the siege's early stages, Hamid says, he was kept busy rounding up hostages and guarding them. But government prosecutors contend that Hamid's role in the siege was anything but minimal.
He helped round up hostages, took steps to prevent police from gaining access to the building, pointed a gun at one hostage, struck another first with his gun butt, and later his fist, prosecutors said. Hamid, they said, was an "active and willing participant in what was probably the largest and most serious criminal offense ever to occur in the District of Columbia."
Hamid denies the allegation that he pistol-whipped the hostage but admits he volunteered to hit one with his fist. He says that, had he not, another Hanafi would have hurt the man more.
As Hamid saw more and more people hurt, he says, he made a decision to unload his gun.
Hamid's attorneys say he was the only Hanafi to provide police with a full confession after his arrest. According to police testimony, when police searched him and confiscated his knives, Hamid pointed out two knives the officers had missed.
Nunzio, a former prosecutor, gave each of the Hanafis a stiff term. "The sentence means that you will die in jail," Nunzio told the man convicted of firing the gun that killed WHUR reporter Maurice Williams at the District Building.
Hamid says he realizes now how it appeared to the public.
"These twelve individuals [the Hanafi defendants] talking about all this crap, telling, 'Yeah, they'd do it again' and 'They'd do it to the death,'" he said. "I'd tend to lock them away for a long time myself."
Hamid received a 36-to-108-year sentence and was sent to a federal prison in Lompoc, Calif. There, court records show, he received an associate of arts degree from Allan Hancock College, completed engine repair and dentistry courses, and received positive evaluations from prison officials.
He also corresponded with Nunzio. In one letter, he wrote: 'Throuhgout the siege of B'nai B'rith -- a situation in profound conflict with my sense of right and wrong -- the totality of my actions were orchestrated by those in command. For the most part, I was as much a hostage as those of which I was convicted of holding."
Charles F. Stow III, then Hamid's defense attorney, filed a request with Nunzio to reduce Hamid's sentence. In support of the request, he provided for the judge a complete record of Hamid's prison achievements, letters of support -- and Hamid himself.
"Answer me this," Nunzio demanded of Hamid, according to court records, "why the B'nai B'rith? Why not [just] the District Building?. . . Why a Jewish organization that had suffered through World War II the way they did? . . . .
Hamid explained that he was "one young man caught up in these events and . . . it was never my intention with forethought and knowledge harm and any one of them."
So, on Jan. 4, 1981, Nunzio saw Hamid again and gave him his freedom. Four months later, the Court of Appeals reversed Nunzio, saying the judge's power to act of Hamid's sentence had expired.
"I don't think he's really been rehabilitated," said one former hostage who contends Hamid twice threatened his life during the takeover. "It seems to me he [had] the benefit of a good lawyer who advised him what to do in order to get out."
The U.S. attorney's offce said Nunzio's ruling held "the orders of all courts up to public ridicule."
U.S. Attorney Charles F. C. Ruff said that Nunzio cannot ignore the fact that history might repeat itself unless it remains clear that such criminals will be dealt with swiftly and severely as was Abdul Hamid."
Attorney Nathan Lewin, in a brief filed on behalf of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, asked, "How serious a deterrent can possible apprehension and punishment be to a potential firebomber or arsonist of a synagogue . . . if he reads that a man who terrorized and assaulted dozens of Jews . . . has been slapped on the wrist and released."
One angry citizen suggested Nunzio "be forced to serve out the unexpired portion" of Hamid's term.
What ever happened to "No nonsense Nick Nunzio?" asked a radio commentator.
Nunzio told friends that he did what he believed was right, but that the reaction was as if he had released a Nazi war criminal.
Hamid is now free on personal bond, pending further court consideration, of his status. His current attorney, Timothy Junkin, has contended in motions seeking Hamid's permanent release that his client should not be thwarted in his attempt to gain freedom solely on the basis of what he termed the "Legal technicality" the appeals court used to reverse Nunzio. The U.S. attorney's office has asked that Hamid be jailed immediately.
"What Nunzio has done is what a lot of judges talk about, but few ever do," said attorney W. Gary Kolhman, who is assisting Junkin. "He focused on the individual, not the notoriety of the case or political pressures."
Within 24 hours of his release in January, Hamid says, he boarded a train to New York where he moved in with some relatives.
He decided to take up again his given name, Hilvan Jude Finch, rejecting his Hanafi past and keeping it a close secret, shared with only a few friends and family.
At this point, Hamid says, he turned down a friend's offer of a passport and ticket out of the country even though he knew the government was appealing his release.
He found a waiter's job in a New York soul-food restaurant, and later went to work as a clerk in an accounting firm. Ironically, he ended up working for the Jewish owner of a furniture store, according to Hamid and his attorneys.
The store's owner grew to like Hamid and ended up giving him a desk across from his. According to Hamid, the owner treated him like his own son, often saying, "'I'm going to sit down and give you some advice like a father.'"
Hamid feared that his role in th B'nai B'rith takeover might jeopardize his relationship with the man, so he hid his past. But in May, when he learned that he had been ordered back to jail, he was so shaken that his boss noticed it. When he asked if anything was wrong, "I spilled my guts," Hamid recalls.
His boss was shocked, said Hamid. "I let him read one of the newspapers articles, and he could not picture how the person he had known in this amount of time and his employe, could be the same person.
"We sat down for about an hour, just sat down in the store and he told me, he said, 'You know, it's a shock. I'm not going to lie to you, it's a shock. I've got to think about this."
Then after some thought, Hamid said, "he told me, 'You have a home here. You've found a home."