An appeals court panel agrees with defense attorneys that prejudice may have affected the jury's deliberations.
By Associated Press
Published August 10, 2005
MIAMI - A federal appeals court threw out the convictions and sentences of five alleged Cuban spies Tuesday, ruling that their trial in Miami wasn't fair because of community prejudice and extensive media coverage.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ordered a new trial in tossing out the 2001 convictions.
There were no Cubans on the jury, but the panel nonetheless agreed with defense attorneys who argued that prejudice against Fidel Castro and his communist government runs high in Miami and could have affected the deliberations.
Also overturned was the murder conspiracy conviction of alleged ringleader Gerardo Hernandez, one of three of the Cubans sentenced to life in prison. He was convicted for his alleged role in the deaths of four Cuban exiles shot down by Cuban MiGs in international airspace in 1996.
"The perception that these (exile) groups could harm jurors that rendered a verdict unfavorable to their views was palpable," Judges Stanley F. Birch Jr., Phyllis A. Kravitch and James L. Oakes wrote in their 93-page ruling.
The judges also faulted prosecutors for making inflammatory remarks in closing arguments, such as saying jurors would be abandoning their community if they acquitted the spies sent to "destroy the United States."
Federal prosecutors declined immediate comment. But former U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, whose office tried the case, called the appellate decision "fundamentally unfair."
"The defendants received a fair trial. The fact that there is publicity about a case should not, in and of itself, mandate a reversal," said Lewis, now in private practice in Miami.
Manny Vazquez, a director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said the court's decision and remarks suggesting jurors were in danger were an "insult to the Cuban community."
Defense attorneys praised the decision as "courageous." They said their clients should be freed pending a new trial. Apart from the three sentenced to life, one was sentenced to 19 years in prison and the other to 15 years.
Hernandez's attorney, Paul McKenna, said any new trial should not be in South Florida. He said his main goal now is to get his client out of maximum-security prison in California.
"He's innocent right now," McKenna said.
All five - Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez, Rene Gonzalez and Ramon Labanino - were convicted in June 2001 of serving as unregistered agents of a foreign government in the so-called Wasp Network. Hernandez and two others were also convicted of espionage conspiracy. Evidence showed that two of them targeted U.S. military installations from Key West to Tampa and that the ring spied on Cuban exiles, including the Brothers to the Rescue group whose planes were shot down in 1996.
All five admitted being Cuban agents, but said they were spying on "terrorist" exile groups opposed to Castro, not the U.S. government. The defense said the agents' primary mission was to thwart exiles who supported terrorism in Cuba, including a string of Havana bombings that killed one tourist and injured 12 others in 1997.
The trial court had denied a defense motion to move the trial away from Miami, despite hard feelings remaining in the Cuban-American community at the time over Elian Gonzalez, a boy who survived a shipwreck of Cuban migrants in 1999 and was forceably taken from his Miami relatives by federal agents and returned to his father in Cuba.