MIAMI – A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the convictions of five men accused of plotting to join forces with al-Qaida to destroy a landmark Chicago skyscraper and bomb FBI offices in several cities.
A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected numerous claims by ringleader Narseal Batiste and his followers, including questions about the sufficiency of the evidence, the FBI's use of an informant posing as an al-Qaida operative and the dismissal of a juror by a federal judge during deliberations.
Batiste, 37, and the other four were convicted in May 2009 of conspiring to provide material support to al-Qaida and wage war against the U.S. stemming from a plot to blow up the 110-story Sears Tower — now known as the Willis Tower — and bomb FBI offices in five cities, including Miami. The eventual goal, testimony showed, was to overthrow the U.S. government.
It took federal prosecutors three trials to obtain convictions; the first two ended in mistrials and two of the original "Liberty City Seven" were acquitted. One of those found not guilty, Lyglenson Lemorin, was nonetheless deported to his native Haiti.
The case was built on recordings of FBI conversations and the group never came close to staging an attack, although the FBI informant posing as a terrorist led them in a videotaped oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden. They also videotaped the Miami FBI office and downtown courthouse buildings as potential targets.
The case was a prime example of the post-9/11 Justice Department strategy of disrupting terror plots in the earliest possible stages.
Prosecutor Jacqueline Arango said during sentencing hearings that the U.S. "shouldn't have to wait for people to be harmed to punish these people for their desire to inflict harm."
The U.S. attorney's office declined comment Tuesday. Ana M. Jhones, who represented Batiste, said in an email that she is disappointed in the outcome.
"Our country is no safer, and indeed probably less so, as a result of the government's actions in this case," Jhones said.
Batiste, who was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison, testified at all three trials that he never intended to carry out any attacks and was only going along for a promised $50,000. But jurors rejected that, and the appeals panel concluded there was evidence that Batiste and his followers intended to offer their services to al-Qaida.
The appeals judges cited tapes in which Batiste is quoted as saying things like, "We're not just talking about taking over Miami or some Dade County, we're talking about taking over Allah's world" and "I got a mission...this is the time for jihad."
They also agreed with U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard's decision to remove a juror following the third trial because she refused to deliberate and follow instructions.
The other four men are serving sentences of nine years or less in prison.
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