The charismatic religious sect leader who calls himself the Son of God was convicted Wednesday of conspiracy to commit murder after a five-month trial filled with testimony about beheadings, mutilation and brutal beatings.
Yahweh ben Yahweh--born Hulon Mitchell Jr.--was found guilty in connection with the plotting of 14 separate murders, two attempted murders and the terrorist firebombing of an entire block in Delray Beach, about 50 miles north of here. Six of 15 Yahweh disciples on trial also were found guilty of conspiracy to murder. Those convicted each face up to 20 years in prison.
Nevertheless, Yahweh and his followers were acquitted on a companion count of racketeering and the jury deadlocked on other counts.
"The prosecution has suffered a major blow and it ain't over yet," said Yahweh's attorney, Alcee L. Hastings. Other defense lawyers cheered and patted each other's backs outside the Ft. Lauderdale courthouse.
Thomas H. Buscaglia, attorney for Hosea Isaac Israel, who was acquitted, charged the government with a "witch hunt" and with misusing federal statutes designed to prosecute organized crime. "They put a group of murder cases together, mixed with the volatile teachings of a small religious group, and tried to make a racketeering enterprise out of it," he said. "But the jury didn't buy it."
Prosecutor Richard Scruggs told the Associated Press: "We are pleased with some of the verdict and disappointed with others. However, the jury has spoken and we have the utmost respect for their decisions."
The verdict from the 12-member, racially mixed jury came after five days of stalled deliberations and several notes indicating that the panel was deadlocked and confused over both the charges and the defendants' guilt or innocence. But U.S. District Judge Norman Roettger Jr. seemed determined not to declare a mistrial.
Yahweh, 56, who is black, presided over a South Florida business empire of schools, groceries and apartment buildings once valued at $8 million while teaching thousands of followers in Miami and several other cities that blacks are the true Jews. Followers wore white robes and turbans, took the surname Israel, kept a kosher diet and worshiped at the sect's "Temple of Love" in Miami.
But even as Yahweh's political and economic clout grew, so too did his impatience with those whom he thought disobeyed or showed a lack of respect. At various times during the early to mid-1980s, according to prosecutors and former members, Yahweh ordered retribution killings of both black blasphemers and "white devils."
The chief prosecution witness was former UC Berkeley and St. Louis Cardinals football player Robert Rozier, who in February testified that he killed six people on Yahweh's orders, often cutting off a victim's ear to offer Yahweh as proof of his deed. Rozier said he was a sect "Death Angel," sent out by Yahweh to avenge what the cult leader perceived as insults against God or historical wrongs against blacks.
Defense attorneys attacked Rozier as a cold-blooded killer and liar who then struck a deal with the government in which he confessed to four murders in exchange for a 22-year prison sentence. Because of time already served, Rozier could be released as early as 1997.
Among other prosecution witnesses was Yahweh's sister, Jean Solomon, a former sect member who testified that she and about 70 others once gathered in the Temple of Love to watch as a former karate champion was beaten to death with a tire iron. After Leonard Dupree was dead, Solomon said, Yahweh ordered her and other women to strike the body.
Yahweh himself took the stand in April, introducing himself to the jurors as "grand master of the celestial lodge, architect of the universe, blessed and only potentate and founder of the Nation of Yahweh." The son of an Oklahoma Pentecostal minister, Yahweh testified that, although he founded the Nation of Yahweh about 12 years ago, "I've been the son of God all my life, but I didn't know it."
Jurors deadlocked on racketeering charges against Yahweh and four others, and on conspiracy charges against two followers. Roettger declared a mistrial on those counts and prosecutors said they may seek a new trial on those charges.
As the verdicts were read, the defendants, wearing the sect's traditional white robes and turbans, stood up in the center of the courtroom. The judge then freed nine of them, although four were immediately arrested on state first-degree murder charges.
In March, Roettger had thrown out part of the government's case, saying that prosecutors had not presented enough evidence to support extortion charges.