Mistrial declared in Liberty City terror trial
Apr. 16, 2008
BY JAY WEAVER
After 12 difficult days of deliberations, a federal jury on Wednesday deadlocked in the second trial of a Miami group accused of plotting with al Qaeda to overthrow the United States — an unprecedented outcome in the government’s legal war on domestic terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks.
”At this juncture it is clear to me this jury is unable to reach a verdict,” U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard said in declaring a mistrial. The decision came after the jury’s third note to the judge indicating the panel was unable to reach a verdict.
The judge set a status conference for April 23 for federal prosecutors to decide whether to try the six defendants for a third time.
”The United States will announce its position on this matter at that time,” said Alicia Valle, special counsel to the U.S. attorney in Miami.
The mistrial came after the 12 jurors failed to reach a verdict on the four terror-related conspiracy charges against the six Liberty City defendants. The central charge was conspiring to provide ”material support” to the global terrorist organization for plans to destroy Chicago’s Sears Tower and federal government buildings.
The outcome, which was hinted at in the panel’s first note issued Friday, was like the previous jury’s verdict. In December, it deadlocked on the four charges against the six defendants and acquitted a seventh after nine days of deliberations.
On Wednesday morning, prosecutors urged the judge to make the jurors deliberate further. ”It just seems to me that it’s a little premature to declare a mistrial,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Arango.
But defense lawyers, who moved for a mistrial, sharply disagreed. ”At this time, at this point, enough is enough,” defense attorney Rod Vereen said, citing the jury’s note saying it was deadlocked for the third time. “I don’t think it’s going to be any clearer.”
The ethnically diverse panel of seven women and five men, which was picked anonymously for the second trial because of the judge’s concerns about potential jury tampering, declined to comment outside the courtroom. The dozen jurors were escorted away from the federal courthouse by U.S. marshals.
The foreman in the original trial predicted the second jury would deadlock. Jeffrey Agron, a lawyer himself, said some jurors would have doubts about the prosecution’s central case — that the six defendants intended to carry out terrorist attacks after taking al Qaeda loyalty oaths in front of an FBI informant posing as a representative of the terrorist group.
He also said that some jurors would believe defense arguments that the Liberty City group’s ringleader only went along with the terrorism plot to con thousands of dollars out of the FBI informant.
Agron also pointed out that no guns, ammunition, explosives or terrorist blueprints were found on the Liberty City suspects after their arrests in June 2006.
”These cases where the government will go after groups that are more aspirational than operational may present problems for the jury,” Agron told The Miami Herald.
The second jury grappled with the same competing theories in the closely watched terrorism trial.
Prosecutors tried to prove the Liberty City group joined forces with al Qaeda in 2006 by taking a loyalty oath to the terrorist group and providing surveillance of target sites such as the FBI building and federal courthouse complex in Miami-Dade County.
Defense lawyers countered that the six men — led by a Messianic-like figure named Narseal Batiste — tried to con up to $50,000 out of an FBI informant who posed as an al Qaeda operative and set them up in a terrorism plot they had no intention of carrying out.
The defendants are Batiste, 33; Patrick Abraham, 28; Burson Augustin, 23; Rothschild Augustine, 24; Stanley Grant Phanor, 32; and Naudimar Herrera, 24.
If they had been convicted on all four terror-related conspiracy counts, each faced up to 70 years in prison.
The case of the Liberty City group made headlines across the country in June 2006 when the FBI arrested the original seven suspects. The Bush administration trumpeted their arrests as “yet another important victory in the war on terrorism.”
Yet the prosecution — relying on FBI wiretaps, phone recordings and videotapes of mainly Batiste — struggled to prove a crime was committed by true terrorists.
After the first two-month trial, jurors interviewed by The Miami Herald said the case was hobbled for a couple of reasons: FBI agents found no explosives, weapons or blueprints for any terrorist activity at the Liberty City group’s warehouse, dubbed The Embassy; those same agents relied on a pair of paid informants who had credibility issues.
During closing arguments in the second trial, which wrapped up on March 28, defense lawyers mocked the government’s case, questioning why the Justice Department targeted these hapless defendants instead of chasing down dangerous terrorists like al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
”This is not a crime of terrorism,” Batiste’s lawyer, Ana Jhones, told jurors in late March. “This is a sad, sad state of affairs.”
She said that Batiste was a ”dirt poor” contractor, father of four children and head of a small religious group who was motivated only by a desperate need for money — not to levy war against the United States.
Batiste attracted the attention of authorities in fall 2005. He began talking with a North Miami shopkeeper about his religious group, anti-U.S. ideology and goal to obtain money to pay for some vague terrorism plans. He actually wanted to form a new nation for his Moorish Science Temple, a religion that combines Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
The shopkeeper, a Yemeni man named Abbas al Saidi, was an FBI informant who considered Batiste a threat. At the direction of FBI agents, the informant introduced Batiste to another Arabic man, who was supposedly going to finance his alleged terror plot — to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago.
In time, the second informant, a Syrian man named Elie Assad, disclosed he was an al Qaeda representative who would help Batiste’s group acquire weapons, explosives and money for the Sears Tower scheme. It was all a front, but Batiste didn’t know it.
In exchange, the informant proposed that Batiste and his followers join al Qaeda in a plot to destroy FBI buildings in Miami and four other cities.
Prosecutors argued that agents introduced Batiste to the second informant to test his will to wage a war against the United States. They cited numerous recorded conversations in which Batiste asked for al Qaeda’s assistance.
The crux of their case revolved around undercover videotapes of Batiste and his men taking pledges to the terrorist group and shooting photographs of target sites such as the FBI building in North Miami Beach and the federal courthouse in downtown Miami. Batiste and some of his men gave the footage to the FBI informant in spring 2006.
Arango, the prosecutor, argued it didn’t matter whether Batiste sought out al Qaeda for financial or ideological purposes.
She also said the defense’s central argument — that Batiste was merely trying to con the FBI informant for thousands of dollars — was “just silliness.”
”If this was a con, you have to believe that the defendants could rip off the deadliest terrorist organization in the world,” Arango told jurors. “Do you think al Qaeda would be OK with that?”
But in the end, jurors struggled to reach an answer to that question — or any other.