Jurors deadlocked in 6 of 7 charged in Sears Tower plot
By: By CURT ANDERSON AP Legal Affairs Writer
MIAMI (AP) — One of seven defendants was acquitted Thursday of plotting to destroy Chicago’s Sears Tower and wage war against the U.S., and a mistrial was declared for the remaining six after the federal jury deadlocked on them.
Federal prosecutor Richard Gregorie said the government plans to retry the six next year and U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard said a new jury would be chosen starting Jan. 7.
The Bush administration had seized on the case to illustrate the dangers of homegrown terrorism and trumpet the government’s post-Sept. 11 success in infiltrating and smashing terrorism plots in their very earliest stages.
Lyglenson Lemorin was acquitted. He had been accused of being a “soldier” for the alleged ringleader, Narseal Batiste. Lemorin, 32, wept and buried his face in his hands when the verdict was read. His lawyer said Lemorin, a legal U.S. resident originally from Haiti, was subject to an immigration hold and would not be immediately released.
The lawyer, Joel DeFabio, said he and his client were “ecstatic” at the verdict.
The jury gave up on the others after nine days of deliberations, following a nearly two-month trial on four terrorism-related conspiracy charges that carry a combined maximum of 70 years in prison. The jury of six men and six women twice sent notes to the presiding judge indicating they could not reach verdicts but were told to keep trying. Another note came Thursday afternoon.
“We believe no further progress can be made,” said the note, read by Lenard in court before the mistrial was declared.
Prosecutors said the “Liberty City Seven” — so-named because they operated out of a warehouse in Miami’s blighted Liberty City section — swore allegiance to al-Qaida and hoped to forge an alliance to carry out bombings against America’s tallest skyscraper, the FBI’s Miami office and other federal buildings.
The group never actually made contact with al-Qaida. Instead, a paid FBI informant known as Brother Mohammed posed as an al-Qaida emissary, with another FBI informant acting as go-between.
Outside the courtroom, jury foreman Jeff Agron, 46, said the group took four votes but was split roughly evenly between guilt and innocence for the other six men. They spent hours viewing and listening to FBI recordings of meetings and conversations involving Batiste and the others, he said.
“People have different takes on what they saw, on what was said and what that meant,” said Agron, an educator in a Jewish school and lawyer from the suburb of Pinecrest. “My personal belief is that there may have been sufficient evidence on some of them as to some of the counts.”
Agron said the evidence was weakest against Lemorin, who had moved with his wife and children to Atlanta and gotten a job at a shopping mall after splitting with Batiste months before the group was arrested. In a statement to the FBI, Lemorin said he never wanted to be associated with al-Qaida and that he knew “nothing good would come from this.”
Lenard refused a request by Lemorin’s lawyer, Joel DeFabio, to be allowed to speak at length with reporters after the verdict. The judge has imposed a gag order on all lawyers in the case.
The mistrial marked the second recent setback for the Bush administration in a high-profile terrorism case. In October, jurors in Dallas were split on charges against the leaders of a Muslim charity — the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development — accused of financing the Palestinian group Hamas.
Jurors also deadlocked on many terrorism support counts against former University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian in December 2005 and in May 2006 in the case of a California ice cream vendor accused of lying to FBI agents about his son’s attendance at an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan.
The defense in the Miami case portrayed the seven men as hapless figures who were either manipulated and entrapped by the FBI and its informants or went along with the plot to con Mohammed out of $50,000.
The group never acquired any weapons or explosives for such a grandiose plot, and prosecutors said no attack was imminent, with the FBI acknowledging the alleged terror cell was “more aspirational than operational.”
But then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said after the arrests in mid-2006 that the group was emblematic of the “smaller, more loosely defined cells who are not affiliated with al-Qaida, but who are inspired by a violent jihadist message.”
And U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta of Miami said: “Our mission is to disrupt these cells if possible before they acquire the capability to implement their plans.”
The Liberty City Seven, which included immigrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, adhered to a sect called the Moorish Science Temple that blends elements of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
The government case was built largely on FBI surveillance video and some 12,000 telephone intercepts.
One key piece of evidence was a video of the seven men taking an oath of loyalty to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden in a March 2006 ceremony.
Also, the group’s leader, 33-year-old Batiste was overheard talking about starting a “full ground war” against the U.S. government by bringing down the 110-story Sears Tower — an attack he said would be “as good or greater than 9/11.”
Published in The Messenger on 12.14.07