5 found guilty in Miami of plotting with Al Qaeda
After back to back mistrials, five men from one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods were convicted Tuesday of trying to join with Al Qaeda in plots to topple the Sears Tower in Chicago and bomb government buildings in South Florida.
Though a sixth man was acquitted, federal prosecutors claimed victory in a case that had dragged on for years and cost millions of taxpayer dollars.
Defense lawyers said their clients were harmless dupes entrapped by government informants. They vowed to appeal.
The defendants convicted in Miami federal court were Narseal Batiste, 35; Patrick Abraham, 29; Rothschild Augustine, 25; Burson Augustin, 24; and Stanley Grant Phanor, 33.
Naudimar Herrera, 25, was found not guilty of all charges, setting him free after two years in prison.
“God is real,” Herrera said through tears outside the courtroom.
But Herrera said his codefendants, all friends, never plotted terrorist acts and should have been acquitted.
“It’s not right,” he said. “They don’t deserve none of this. I know them.”
Lawyer Richard Houlihan, who represented Herrera, said, “It’s been three years of hell for him, and now it’s over.”
The group, arrested in 2006, became known in the media as the Liberty City Six after the 2007 acquittal of defendant Lyglenson Lemorin, 34, in the first trial.
Lemorin, a Haitian national and legal U.S. resident, is in immigration custody and fighting a deportation order based on the terrorism allegations.
Prosecutors said the men, led by Batiste, wanted to bring down the U.S. government and sought an alliance with Al Qaeda to carry out attacks.
Prosecutors said the group’s aims included blowing up the 110-story Sears Tower, poisoning salt shakers in restaurants and launching terrorist attacks “just as good or greater than” the Sept. 11 attacks.
After the verdict, Jonathan Solomon, special agent in charge of the FBI’s South Florida field office, said the nation was a “much safer place” because of the prosecution.
But defense lawyers said their clients had been set up by overzealous government informants who baited them by promising them money.
“This is not a terrorism case,” Batiste’s lawyer, Ana Jhones, said in her closing argument. “This is a manufactured crime.”
With their verdict, the nine women and three men on the jury endorsed the government’s characterization of Batiste as a dangerous home-grown terrorist, but seemed to view some of the other men as followers who played lesser roles.
Prosecutors said Batiste, a former FedEx deliveryman from Chicago, thought he was a divine messenger and had compared himself to Jeff Fort, a former Chicago gang leader convicted in 1987 for agreeing to aid Libya in a domestic terrorism plot.
Batiste was the sole defendant convicted on all four terrorism-related charges. He faces up to 70 years in prison for conspiring to support Al Qaeda, support terrorism, blow up buildings and wage war against the U.S. government.
Abraham, convicted on three charges, faces up to 50 years in prison. He was found not guilty of plotting to bring down the government.
The remaining defendants, each convicted of two counts for conspiring to support terrorists, face up to 30 years in prison.
Sentencing will be July 27.
“We have only just begun to fight,” said defense lawyer Nathan Clark, who represented Augustine.
The defendants worked for a small construction company owned by Batiste and met for religious study in a warehouse in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood.
They came under investigation when a local Yemeni American convenience store clerk reported to the FBI that Batiste was seeking support from Middle Eastern terrorists.
The FBI had the clerk introduce Batiste to an undercover informant posing as an Al Qaeda financier.