A Federal judge in Miami declared a mistrial Thursday after a jury failed to reach a verdict in the trial of six men accused in 2006 of plotting to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago and several other government buildings. A seventh suspect was acquitted in what analysts describe as a setback for the US government's domestic counterterrorism program. Jury selection for a retrial of the other six suspects will start next month.
The case against the so-called Liberty City Seven, named after the neighborhood in Miami where they met, was a preemptive prosecution, as they posed no immediate security threat at the time of arrest. A government official described the alleged terrorists as "more aspirational than operational." Defense lawyers argued in court that paid FBI informants who infiltrated the homegrown group were strung along for money for an Al Qaeda terror plot that never existed.
Prosecutors said the suspects were recorded on tape boasting that they wanted to join Al Qaeda on "a mission that would be as good or greater than 9/11," the Guardian reported.
Based on thousands of hours of audio and video recordings, including one that showed some of the men taking an oath of allegiance to al-Qaida, the government case argued that the group planned to sow chaos by poisoning salt cellars in restaurants and blowing up buildings, and wanted to obtain equipment including machine guns, a rocket launcher, military uniforms and bullet-proof vests.
The Associated Press reports that after nine days of deliberation, the jury sent a note to the judge on Thursday that said it was deadlocked and unable to make progress on the charges against six of the men. The judge read out the note in court and declared a mistrial.
Outside the courtroom, jury foreman Jeff Agron 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, 46, a teacher and lawyer. "My personal belief is that there may have been sufficient evidence on some of them as to some of the counts."
The acquitted man was an immigrant from Haiti, while others in the group came from the Dominican Republic. All were members of a sect called the Moorish Science Temple that blended Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
The group first came under suspicion in 2005, reports The New York Times, when a Yemeni man reported them to the FBI as seeking to make contact with Al Qaeda. During an eight-month investigation, the bureau used wiretaps and hidden cameras to gather evidence against the men. This included a recording of Narseal Batiste, the leader of the group, discussing plans for a "ground war" in the US.
What the recordings did not show were military weapons, explosives or blueprints for a terrorist plot, although prosecutors said the group's preparations included surveillance photos of federal buildings in Miami, wish lists of weapons and military equipment, and a request for $50,000 from Al Qaeda that Mr. Batiste gave to an undercover F.B.I. agent.
Defense lawyers said the men were simply playing along with an F.B.I.-engineered ruse to get money to pay for a community center and Mr. Batiste's construction business.
Time says that the FBI's reliance on paid informants to tease statements from suspects is a risky strategy that can yield some farcical leads.
At one point during the Liberty City investigation, Batiste suggested to the informant that they could blow up the Sears Tower so that it would fall into Lake Michigan and create a tsunami. "Where did you get this idea?" Batiste's attorney later asked him on the stand. His answer was believable: "Just from watching the movies."
The Miami Sun-Sentinel says that the government's failure to successfully prosecute this and other terror cases may reflect growing skepticism over the Bush administration's willingness to play up domestic security fears, as well as suspicions that the hunt for terrorists was picking up "big talkers," not hardened operatives.
"The public mood is very different now than it was three or four years ago," said Bruce Winick, a law professor at the University of Miami. "Prosecutors in the past were able very successfully to play the fear card, and I think that has dissipated."
The St. Petersburg Times reports that the Justice Department has suffered several partial or outright defeats in major terrorism cases, while others have resulted in guilty pleas only after the dropping of the most serious charges. It cites a case in Tampa involving funding provided to a Palestinian militant group.
With no guilty verdicts, the Liberty City Seven join about a dozen other terrorism defendants around the country who have been prosecuted since the Sept. 11 attacks in costly cases that resulted in acquittals and mistrials. Among those was Sami Al-Arian, who along with three other defendants was charged in Tampa with supporting terrorism. Al-Arian later pleaded guilty to helping a terrorist organization with non-violent activities and was sentenced to 57 months in prison.
Paul Perez, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida where Al-Arian was tried, is now a financial attorney in Jacksonville.
"These terrorism cases are pretty tough for the government to prove and for juries to weigh," he said. "But that's not a reason not to bring them to trial and to retry them if there's a deadlock."
In a recent report, the Miami New Times, an alternative news biweekly, says that two of the FBI informants who posed as Al Qaeda members to penetrate the group had unsavory pasts. One, Abbas al-Saidi, a Yemen national, who provided the initial tip-off to the FBI, was jailed in 2004 on battery charges after beating up his girlfriend. The other, Elie Assad, a Lebanese national, failed a polygraph test while previously working as an informant for the FBI in Chicago.