MIAMIIt took three trials, three juries and nearly three years, but federal prosecutors finally succeeded Tuesday in convicting five Miami men of plotting to start an anti-government insurrection by destroying Chicago's Sears Tower and bombing FBI offices. One man was acquitted.
When the FBI swarmed the downtrodden Liberty City neighborhood to make the arrests in June 2006, the administration of President George W. Bush hailed the case as a prime example of the Justice Department's post-Sept. 11 policy of disrupting potential terror plots in the earliest possible stages.
Yet hours of FBI recordings of terrorist talk contrasted with little concrete evidence of an evolving plot, triggering two mistrials because juries could not agree on verdicts against ringleader Narseal Batiste or five followers. One of the original seven defendants was acquitted after the first trial.
"Any cases that involve someone's mental intent, their intention when they made certain statements, are always difficult," said Matthew Orwig, former U.S. attorney in Texas who has monitored the Miami case. "It was a must-win for the government. They needed some vindication."
Finally, this third jury found the way on its sixth day of deliberations. It wasn't the only victory Tuesday for terrorism prosecutors. In a separate case in New York, a jury convicted a Lebanese-born Swede of trying to set up a terror training camp in Oregon in 1999. The verdict against Oussama Kassir capped a three-week trial. In the Miami case, Batiste, 35, was the only one convicted of all four terrorism-related conspiracy counts, including plotting to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to wage war against the U.S. Batiste, who was on the vast majority of FBI recordings, faces up to 70 years in prison.
Batiste's right-hand man, 29-year-old Patrick Abraham, was convicted on three counts and faces 50 years behind bars. Convicted on two counts and facing 30 years are 24-year-old Burson Augustin, 25-year-old Rotschild Augustine and 33-year-old Stanley Grant Phanor. Naudimar Herrera, 25, was cleared of all four charges.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard set sentencing for July 27 for the five convicted men, most of whom are Haitian or have Haitian ancestry. Herrera criticized the prosecution as "bogus" and insisted the men banded together not for terrorism but to explore ways to lift up the impoverished, drug-infested area. "It's not right," Herrera said outside the courthouse. "We were really all about helping the community."
Ihe jury endured a two-month trial, then had to restart deliberations last week after one juror was excused for illness and a second was booted off the panel for being uncooperative. After the verdicts were read, court security officials escorted the jury whose names were kept secret out of the building before they could be interviewed. "This was a difficult trial, and we thank all the prosecutors and agents involved, whose efforts resulted in today's successful conclusion," said Miami U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta, a holdover Bush appointee. Prosecutors Richard Gregorie and Jacqueline Arango focused on the group's intent as captured on dozens of FBI audio and video recordings. Batiste is repeatedly heard espousing violence against the U.S. government and saying the men should start a "full ground war" that would "kill all the devils."
"I want to fight some jihad," Batiste says on one tape.
A key piece of evidence is an FBI video of the entire group pledging an oath of allegiance, or "bayat," to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden in a March 16, 2006, ceremony led by an Arabic-speaking FBI informant posing as "Brother Mohammed" from al-Qaida. Testimony also showed the men took photographs and video of possible targets in Miami, including the FBI building, a courthouse complex and a synagogue.
But Batiste, who testified in all three trials, insisted he was only going along with Mohammed so he could obtain $50,000 or more for his struggling construction business and a nascent community outreach program. Batiste was leader of a Miami chapter of a sect known as the Moorish Science Temple, which combines elements of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and does not recognize the U.S. government's full authority...