Given that hard evidence is often scarce in trials of
unsuccessful terrorists, federal prosecutors in Miami
no doubt felt fortunate to be trying defendants who participated in a ceremony
pledging allegiance to al Qaeda—which was captured on video.
The defendants took surveillance photos of government
buildings. The leader of the cell
admitted requesting from an apparent terrorist financier boots, uniforms,
vehicles, machine guns and $50,000. Just
in case the reason for the request was unclear, Narseal Batiste stated—on
tape—that it was for creating an “Islamic army” to wage a “full ground war” and
commit an attack that would be “as good or greater than 9/11,” such as blowing
up the Sears Tower.
It wasn’t enough.
They weren’t convicted.
In a stunning defeat for common sense, a Miami jury couldn’t
convict seven defendants on a single of the 28 total charges. One man, who had moved to Atlanta months
before the arrests and had severed ties with the group, was acquitted
entirely. The jury deadlocked on all
charges brought against the other members of the “Liberty City Seven.”
Though prosecutors are re-trying the remaining defendants next
month, odds of success the second time around seem dicey. Put simply, it appears that several jurors
were determined to acquit, no matter the evidence.
Consider that Batiste’s explanation should have prompted
laughter, not doubts about his guilt: He claimed he did it for the
Taking the stand, the group’s leader testified that he was
actually trying to con the undercover informant to get money to build a
Even though the defense provided no independent,
corroborating evidence, several jurors believed the “theory of it all being a
scam,” said jury foreman Jeffrey Agron.
He offered that the defense indeed had a certain appeal—but nothing to
back it up. Agron explained, “I kept
saying, ‘It’s a great story. It makes sense. Now where’s the evidence?’”
One media-touted theory is that the defendants inspired
sympathy as hapless wannabes. A
dismissed juror—who was shown the door near the midpoint for reading a police
pamphlet outside the courthouse on terrorism during the trial—explained that he
was favoring acquittal for that very reason.
“They were playing ninja,” said Eldon Brown. “These guys were living in the movies. They
were completely out of touch with reality.”
Then there’s the inherent problem of prosecuting unsuccessful
terrorists: By definition, they never actually have succeeded.
Juror Michael Silva clearly didn’t feel threatened by the
defendants, explaining after the trial, “It was not like [prosecutors] had
evidence of somebody planting explosives.”
Silva did not state that he pushed for a universal acquittal, but Agron
said that a different juror kept insisting during deliberations that explosives
being planted or something similar would have been necessary.
Never mind that one of the charges brought against each of
the defendants—conspiracy to support al Qaeda—required no imminent attacks or
anything beyond an agreement to support bin Laden’s network. Swearing an oath to al Qaeda clearly
satisfies that requirement, but the defendants also took reconnaissance photos
of government buildings—more than enough under the law to convict on the
Not discussed in the post-trial analyses is something very
much on the minds of people responsible for putting away terrorists, namely
that Islamic pressure groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations
(CAIR), may have made it substantially more difficult to win convictions in
For years, CAIR and its ilk have spewed hyperbolic rhetoric
casting Muslims nationwide as the victims of an Islamophobic law
enforcement. And the narrative of a
government hellbent on prosecuting as a terrorist any Muslim opposed to U.S.
policies has found a receptive audience outside the Islamic community.
Lending credibility to these obscene charges are none other
than high-ranking government—and law enforcement—officials, who headline events
sponsored by CAIR, Islamic Society of North America and other Islamic
conspiracy theorists. The government is,
in short, legitimizing those who seek to de-legitimize them.
Several people who have been closely involved in terrorism
trials have noticed unusual skepticism of the government’s motives and evidence
in prosecutions of Muslims facing terror-related charges. One government official described an incident
where a juror openly insinuated that the accused Muslim was the victim of
It’s entirely possible that knee-jerk distrust of the
government played a role in two high-profile cases. Mountains of damning evidence existed in the
prosecutions of Sami al-Arian in Florida and the Holy Land Foundation
executives in Texas, yet neither trial yielded any convictions.
Unusual—and unsubstantiated—skepticism of the government is
the only rational explanation in the Liberty City mistrial. To the jury’s acquittal hardliners, hundreds
of recorded conversations and intercepted phone calls were trumped by Batiste’s
uncorroborated, after-the-fact story that he was trying to get money for a
Maybe the pro-acquittal jurors pitied them as pathetic. Or perhaps they were sympathetic toward the
poor, black defendants. But at least as
plausible is that, deep down, those jurors believe the conspiracy theories spun
by groups like CAIR.
When prosecutors start the retrial of the remaining six
defendants next month, they will be saddled with this sobering reality: If a
videotaped oath of loyalty to al Qaeda, requests for machine guns and
surveillance photos of possible targets were not enough, what will be?