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A dramatic arrest has turned into a legal nightmare for the federal government. Prosecutors ordered the arrest of seven men in Miami in 2006. They were accused of plotting to blow up federal buildings and the Sears Tower in Chicago. But since then, one man has been acquitted, and as for the others, a judge has declared a mistrial for the second time.
NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: When seven men from Miami's Liberty City neighborhood were arrested in June of 2006, an FBI official hailed the case as, quote, "another important victory on the war on terrorism." The men were described as a homegrown terrorist cell. And at a news conference, Miami's U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, said they had sought to align themselves with al-Qaida.
Mr. ALEX ACOSTA (U.S. Attorney, Southern District of Florida): These individuals wish to wage a, quote, "full ground war against the United States," to, quote, "kill all the devils we can." They hoped their attacks to be, quote, "just as good or greater than 9/11."
ALLEN: But in two separate trials now, that's a premise jurors have not been able to accept. In December, jurors acquitted one of the seven men and deadlocked on the others. Federal Judge Joan Lenard declared a mistrial. A month later, prosecutors tried again, once again charging the now six defendants with providing support to terrorist groups and conspiring to wage war against the U.S.
But yesterday, after 12 full days of deliberations, a jury once again told Judge Lenard they were deadlocked, and she declared a second mistrial. There's a gag order in effect which prevents attorneys from talking.
Wake Forest University Law Professor Robert Chesney has written about this and other cases where defendants are charged with providing support to terrorists. One reason this has turned out to be such a tough case for prosecutors, he says, is because the government intervened in the alleged plot so early, before the men from Liberty City had done little more than talk and snap a few photos.
At the time of their arrest, Justice Department officials talked about this early intervention strategy, saying they were intent on being proactive and preventing terrorist attacks. Chesney says that strategy can make prosecutions difficult.
Professor ROBERT CHESNEY (Law, Wake Forest University): When you do intervene at a more remote point in time from the actual attempt to carry out some plot, there will be greater and greater questions about whether these defendants really were ever going to attempt to carry out the plot. And so you have a harder time proving the case in the end.
ALLEN: In both trials, the prosecution's case rested largely on the testimony of two government informants. One, known to the defendants as Brother Mohamed, purported to be a member of al-Qaida, promising the men weapons, vehicles and $50,000 in cash. Prosecutors played for jurors a videotape of the men taking an oath to al-Qaida.
The leader of the Liberty City group, Narseal Batiste, also agreed to shoot photos of federal buildings in Miami - buildings Brother Mohamed said would be targeted for bombings. But Batiste turned out to be a key witness for the defense, spending more than a week on the stand, steadfastly maintaining that he and the other men never had any intention of committing violence, that they were just playing along with a purported al-Qaida representative in an effort to get the money.
The question now is whether the government will take its chances with a new jury and try the case a third time. The Justice Department says it will decide next week.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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