The Bush administration was so eager to make a high-profile terrorism case that paid FBI informants were used to trump up evidence against six men accused of plotting to destroy Chicago's Sears Tower and bomb FBI offices, a defense attorney said Friday as the group's retrial began.
The first trial of the so-called Liberty City Seven ended in December in a hung jury for six defendants and the acquittal of a seventh, who is nevertheless being deported to Haiti because of the accusations. Several jurors in the first case called the government's evidence thin.
Ana M. Jhones, an attorney for accused ringleader Narseal Batiste, told the new, racially mixed jury of seven men and five women that FBI agents and prosecutors sought to build a case at any cost against the men from Miami's impoverished Liberty City neighborhood.
"This was about desperation - desperation to justify something that never happened," Jhones said in her opening statement. "We have a fabrication, a setup, of six young black men from Liberty City."
Prosecutors, however, said the FBI was right to aggressively follow tips that the group was discussing the overthrow of the U.S. government through the bombings and by forming alliances with Islamic extremist groups. Although the men never obtained any weapons or explosives to carry out any attacks, prosecutors said the crime was in their agreement to do so.
"They had the will, they had the heart, they had the soul to do harm to this country," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Arango. "All they needed was assistance, and al-Qaida was that ticket."
The six men have been in custody since their June 2006 arrests. They could get to 70 years in prison if convicted of four terrorism-related conspiracy charges. The man who was acquitted in the first trial, 33-year-old Lyglenson Lemorin, is expected to testify for the defense in a case that could last about two months.
The star government witness is an FBI informant who posed for months as an al-Qaida operative named Brother Mohammed sent to evaluate Batiste's group and help with its purported terrorist mission. Key evidence includes 400 hours of FBI audio and video recordings of conversations and one tape showing the group pledging loyalty in March 2006 to al-Qaida.
Batiste, 33, testified in the first trial that he played along with the terrorist talk in hopes of conning Brother Mohammed out of $50,000 to build up his struggling construction business and create a community improvement program.
Batiste led a sect called the Moorish Science Temple that blends elements of several religions and does not recognize the U.S. government's authority.