By JAY WEAVER
After two previous mistrials, a federal jury finally reached verdicts in the Bush-era terrorism case of six Miami men charged with conspiring with al Qaeda -- convicting five and acquitting one.
The racially mixed jury convicted the Liberty City Six’s ringleader, Narseal Batiste, 35, along with four of his colleagues: Patrick Abraham, 29, Stanley Grant Phanor, 33, Rotschild Augustine, 25, and Burson Augustin, 24.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The only freed man: Naudimar Herrera, 25, who hugged the other defendants and his attorney, Richard Houlihan, after the verdicts, then cried outside the courtroom where he embraced his girlfriend.
“God is real,” said Herrera, who condemned the guilty verdicts against his fellow defendants. “It’s not right. They don’t deserve this. All of us were supposed to be innocent. It’s all B.S.
“They’re going to come back and fight this. It ain’t over.”
The indictment charged the Liberty City Six with four counts of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization; to provide material support to terrorists; to destroy buildings with explosives; and to levy war against the U.S. government in a seditious act.
Batiste -- a former Chicago resident accused of being the mastermind of a terror plot to blow up that city’s landmark, the Sears Tower -- was found guilty on all four conspiracy counts. Jurors also convicted all the other defendants but Herrera on the two material support counts. Abraham was the only other defendant to be convicted on the third count, conspiring to destroy buildings.
Batiste, detained since his arrests with the others in June 2006, faces up to 70 years in prison. Abraham, a Haitian national also in custody, could serve up to 50 years. Phanor and the Augustin brothers, whose bonds were revoked by U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard, face up to 30 years. Their sentencings are set for July 27.
The 12-member jury, which began deliberations on April 27 after a two-month trial, was interrupted twice -- the first time after a sick juror had to be replaced, and the second time after the judge removed a recalcitrant panelist because she refused to deliberate with the others. The jury convened anew May 5, wrapping up on the sixth day of deliberations.
Defense appeals of the guilty verdicts are a certainty.
“Today was their day,” Abraham’s attorney, Albert Levin, said, referring to the government. “We are very much looking forward to our day in a different court.”
The jury verdicts were solace for the prosecution, which had seen two previous trials end with deadlocked jurors and the acquittal of a seventh defendant, Lyglenson Lemorin. Despite his acquittal, immigration authorities are seeking to deport the lawful U.S. resident to his native Haiti.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Miami had indicated that it wouldn’t have retried the six inner-city men accused of conspiring with the global terrorist organization if jurors had hung in the third trial.
The verdicts brought to a close the former Bush administration’s once-touted terrorism case, which senior officials had described as a preemptive strategy to stop the Liberty City defendants from endangering the public.
Jonathan Solomon, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami regional office, praised the verdicts, saying the investigation “disrupted a terrorist threat, and as a result our community and nation are a much safer place.”
The case, involving secret undercover recordings of phones, warehouses and homes, was a sting operation. In late 2005 and early 2006, the FBI wanted to test the militancy of the group’s leader, Batiste, a Messianic-like figure who held sway over the other defendants.
The Chicago transplant tried to establish a construction business and religious organization called the Moorish Science Temple in a warehouse in Liberty City, one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods.
In the third trial, prosecutors Jacqueline Arango and Richard Gregorie put a new spin on the evidence by trying to portray Batiste as an admirer of a notorious criminal in Chicago. They tried to show that Batiste’s inspiration for his radicalism was Jeff Fort, whom Batiste came to appreciate as a young man living in that city. Fort, a drug trafficker who led a black militant gang, was convicted in 1987 of conspiring with Libya to terrorize the United States.
But no evidence directly linked Batiste to Fort or his violent group, the El Rukns.
Instead, the government’s case hinged primarily on two FBI informants. The first, a convenience store clerk from Yemen with a criminal history, snitched on Batiste after hearing him talk about his militant ideas, including destroying the Chicago landmark.
At the FBI’s direction, he introduced Batiste to the second informant, a more polished Middle Eastern man who posed as an al Qaeda representative. He insinuated his way into Batiste’s group by proposing that al Qaeda could help Batiste on his mission to blow up the Sears Tower if Batiste could return the favor by assisting al Qaeda in a scheme to destroy several FBI buildings.
The informant’s plan was a fiction, however, designed to see how far Batiste would go with his militant ambitions. He peppered Batiste with questions about logistics for his mission: did the group need weapons, vehicles, uniforms, money? Batiste seemed mostly interested in getting money for himself and his impoverished crew.
The team of defense attorneys consistently trashed the government’s case as a “set up,” labeling the FBI informants as “con men.”
In the end, perhaps the most compelling factors were evidence that Batiste and his followers took oaths to al Qaeda and took surveillance video of target sites, such as the FBI building in North Miami Beach and federal courthouse in downtown Miami.
But when FBI agents arrested the men nearly three years ago at their warehouse in Liberty City, they found no weapons of mass destruction, no terrorism blueprints and no radical literature.
“We were really about helping the community,” Herrera, the lone acquitted defendant, said outside the courthouse. “It wasn’t until this informant came into the picture that things changed. All we wanted from him was money. It was a like a dangling carrot.”
Rotschild Augustine’s wife, Danielle, said the government’s criminal case was born from the post-9/11 atmosphere of fear.
“They created a fear of something that was never actually going to take place,” she said. “It got blown out of proportion, but the government is never going to admit they were wrong.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jose Pagliery contributed to this report.