Two Judges on Three-Judge Panel Uphold Conspiracy to Commit Murder Conviction Despite Government’s Lack of Evidence
New York. The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) believes that politics influenced yesterday’s federal appeals court decision upholding the convictions of five Cuban patriots accused of spying in the United States. The so-called Cuban Five were gathering information on U.S.-based exile groups planning terrorist actions against their island nation.
The court did, however, vacate the sentences of three of the Five, including two serving life terms. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals returned the three cases to a federal judge in Miami for re-sentencing based on findings that the three men had gathered no classified information.
The full 11th Circuit court in August 2006 upheld the convictions of the Five: Gerardo Hernández , Fernando González , René González , Ramon Labañino, and Antonio Guerrero. It rejected claims that their federal trial should have been moved out of Miami because widespread opposition to the Cuban government among Cuban-Americans would make it impossible to get a fair and impartial jury.
In the appeal ruled on yesterday, the Five challenged rulings on the suppression of evidence from searches conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, sovereign immunity, discovery procedures, jury selection, prosecutorial and witness misconduct, jury instructions, sufficiency of the evidence to support their convictions, and sentencing.
In this latest decision, the panel voted 2-1 to affirm the life sentence for Gerardo Hernández, who was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths of four Miami-based pilots shot down by Cuban jets in 1996. In her 16-page dissent, Judge Phyllis Kravich wrote that the government failed to present evidence sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hernández agreed to participate in a conspiracy to shoot down planes over international airspace, resulting in the deaths of four pilots from an anti-Castro organization, Brothers to the Rescue. The panel also affirmed Rene González’s 15-year sentence for acting as a non-registered foreign agent and conspiracy to act as a non- registered foreign agent.
The panel vacated the life terms of Labañino and Guerrero, agreeing with their contentions that their sentences were improperly configured because no “top secret information was gathered or transmitted.” The judges also vacated Fernando González’s 19-year sentence because he was not a manager or supervisor of the network. The panel remanded these cases to the district court for re-sentencing.
After a trial that lasted six months, the Five were convicted in 2001 of acting as unregistered Cuban agents in the United States and of conspiracy to commit espionage for attempting to penetrate U.S. military bases. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit overturned the convictions in 2005, saying there should have been a change of venue. But the full court reversed that decision, 10-2.
“Conspiracy has always been the charge used by the prosecution in political cases,” said NLG attorney Leonard Weinglass, who represents Guerrero. “In the case of the Five, the Miami jury was asked to find that there was an agreement to commit espionage. The government never had to prove that espionage actually happened. It could not have proven that espionage occurred. None of the Five sought or possessed any top secret information or US national defense secrets,” Weinglass added. “The sentence for the conspiracy charge is the same as if espionage were actually committed and proven. That is how three got life sentences. The major charges in this case were all conspiracy related, the most serious being conspiracy to commit murder levied against Gerardo Hernández.”
“Anti-Cuba sentiment has tainted all possibility of a fair trial for the Five since their original arrest and confinement, which the UN Rapporteur on Torture described as violating the Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” said NLG Executive Director Heidi Boghosian. “During the original trial, the Bush administration paid journalists to write unfavorable stories about Cuba. Anti-Cuban extremists tried to intimidate the jurors, and even prospective jurors admitted that they would be afraid to return not-guilty verdicts against the Five.”
“For nearly 50 years, anti-Cuba terrorist organizations based in Miami have engaged in countless terrorist activities against Cuba,” said NLG President Marjorie Cohn. “In the face of this terrorism, the Cuban Five were gathering intelligence in Miami in order to prevent future terrorist acts against Cuba.”