Attempted Frame-up of Seven Black Men in Fake Terror Plot
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BY JAY WEAVER AND LUISA YANEZ
A homegrown terrorism case that allegedly sprouted in one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods wilted on Thursday when a judge declared a mistrial in the prosecution of six of seven defendants.
Federal jurors acquitted one defendant in the so-called Liberty City 7 trial, but they could not agree on any of the terrorism conspiracy counts against the others.
''We believe that no further progress can be made,'' the 12-member jury told U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard, ending deliberations after nine days following a two-month trial in Miami. Each, if convicted, would have faced up to 70 years in prison.
The judge ordered a retrial to begin Jan. 7 and issued a gag order.
The jurors found defendant Lyglenson Lemorin not guilty on four terrorism-related conspiracy charges. Lemorin, 32, a Haitian immigrant, cried with his attorney, Joel Defabio, after the verdict, saying they were ''ecstatic.'' But Lemorin won't be immediately released because of immigration issues.
The judge's decision was seen as a significant defeat for the Justice Department and a temporary victory for most of the defendants, who are still in custody. The U.S. attorney's office in Miami declined to comment.
The group was arrested in June 2006 amid much fanfare by the Bush administration, which described the defendants as being as ''dangerous'' as al Qaeda -- despite evidence showing they had no terrorism blueprints or weapons of mass destruction.
The FBI had declared the original indictment against the defendants ``yet another important victory in the war on terrorism.''
At trial, prosecutors tried to prove the defendants' mission was a conspiracy to spread ''chaos and confusion'' by blowing up Chicago's Sears Tower and FBI buildings in major cities.
The defendants -- a struggling group of construction laborers who tried to start a religious group in Liberty City -- were charged with conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, destroy buildings with explosives and break away from the United States.
But the racially mixed, 12-member Miami-Dade panel apparently didn't see it that way.
The jury foreman said the panel was ''evenly split'' on the four terrorism conspiracy counts against the remaining defendants, though it decided Lemorin was not guilty on Tuesday.
''It was a very difficult case with a lot of evidence,'' said foreman Jeffrey Agron, 46, of Pinecrest, a lawyer who is principal of a Jewish school in Kendall. ``People see evidence in different ways.''
He said jurors took sides: Some believed the government's conspiracy case was strong because the seven defendants took an oath to al Qaeda and had videotaped alleged target sites.
But other jurors thought the defendants, especially ringleader Narseal Batiste, were simply trying to con thousands of dollars out of an FBI-directed informant, who infiltrated the group and led the seven men deeper into the alleged terrorism plot.
Said Agron: ``My personal belief is there may have been sufficient evidence to convict some of the defendants.''
Agron said the jury acquitted Lemorin, a Haitian who is a lawful permanent resident, because of the ''general lack of evidence.'' Lemorin had already moved to Atlanta to distance himself from the group in April 2006 -- two months before the FBI made arrests.
He attributed the lengthy deliberations to the complexity of the case -- a total of 28 counts for the seven defendants.
He added that the diverse jury, made up of six whites and six blacks, stayed clear of taking sides based on race. ''As far as I could tell, there was no racial component in our deliberation,'' Agron said.
The trial turned on the role of the FBI informant, who infiltrated the Miami organization in December 2005. He was introduced to the group by a previous FBI informant, a North Miami shopkeeper who began reporting to his handlers that Batiste was talking about alleged terrorism plans.
At trial, Batiste came across as a complex messianic-like figure, a father of four who lived in North Miami while trying to get a construction business off the ground. All the while, he was trying to start a local chapter of the Moorish Science Temple in a warehouse called ''The Embassy'' in Liberty City. The religion embraces the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.
Batiste's attorney, Ana Jhones, argued that he joined forces with the ''al Qaeda representative'' only because he was desperate for money. His main defense: The FBI informant entrapped him and his men in a ''fabricated crime,'' said Jones, calling the government's conduct ``outrageous.''
But prosecutors portrayed Batiste and his followers as wannabe terrorists bent on breaking away from the United States.
While Batiste, a former Chicago resident, initially brought up the idea of bombing the 110-story Sears Tower, it was the FBI-led informant who steered him and his followers into the more grandiose plot of joining forces with al Qaeda to destroy FBI buildings in Miami and other cities.
The informant, an Arabic man who went by the name ''Brother Mohammad'' and was paid about $80,000, was actually posing as a terrorist financier for his FBI undercover work.
He succeeded in persuading Batiste and his followers to take the oath to al Qaeda in March 2006 under FBI video surveillance in a warehouse near the Little Haiti section of Miami. He also gave them a video camera to take photographs of target sites, including the FBI building in North Miami Beach.
Although Batiste was recorded on wiretaps talking about waging war along with al Qaeda and praising its leader, Osama bin Laden, he testified at trial that he was merely trying to con $50,000 out of the FBI informant.
The other defendants' attorneys tried to distance their clients from Batiste, suggesting they were not aware of his discussions with the FBI informant. At the same time, they backed Batiste's defense that he was trying to trick the informant into giving him the $50,000.
Prosecutors argued that it didn't matter if the FBI informant was posing as an al Qaeda operative, because Batiste and his men believed he was a member of the terrorist group and gave him lists for weapons, ammunition, vehicles and other resources for their fledgling Islamic army.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Arango said during closing arguments that the Liberty City 7 were ``trying to make their mark . . . on a mission that would be just as good or greater than 9/11.''
The challenge for federal prosecutors was proving the defendants' criminal intentions to join the fledgling terrorism conspiracy -- one that an FBI deputy director ultimately acknowledged was more ``aspirational than operational.''