MIAMI - In a stinging defeat for the Bush administration, one of seven Miami men accused of plotting to join forces with al-Qaeda to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower was acquitted yesterday, and the case against the rest ended in a hung jury.
Federal prosecutor Richard Gregorie said the government planned to retry the six next year, and the judge set jury selection for Jan. 7.
The White House had seized on the case to illustrate the dangers of homegrown terrorism and trumpet the government's post-Sept. 11 success in infiltrating and smashing terrorism plots in their earliest stages.
Lyglenson Lemorin, 32, had been accused of being a "soldier" for alleged ringleader Narseal Batiste. Lemorin, a legal U.S. resident from Haiti, buried his face in his hands when his acquittal was read.
The jury gave up on the other defendants after nine days of deliberations on four terrorism-related conspiracy charges that carry a combined maximum of 70 years in prison. The jurors twice sent notes to the judge indicating they could not reach verdicts but were told to keep trying.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard called a mistrial after their third note, which she quoted as saying: "We believe no further progress can be made."
Prosecutors said the "Liberty City Seven" - so-named because they operated out of a warehouse in Miami's poor Liberty City area - swore allegiance to al-Qaeda and hoped to forge an alliance to carry out bombings against America's tallest skyscraper, the FBI's Miami office, and other federal sites.
The group never actually made contact with al-Qaeda and did not acquire weapons or explosives. Instead, a paid FBI informant known as Brother Mohammed posed as an al-Qaeda emissary.
The defense portrayed the seven men as hapless figures who were either manipulated and entrapped by the FBI or went along with the plot to con "Mohammed" out of $50,000.
Prosecutors said no attack was imminent, acknowledging that the alleged terror cell was "more aspirational than operational." But then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said after the arrests in mid-2006 that the group was emblematic of the "smaller, more loosely defined cells who are not affiliated with al-Qaeda but who are inspired by a violent jihadist message."
Outside the courtroom, jury foreman Jeff Agron said the group took four votes but was split roughly evenly between guilt and innocence for the six other men. Jurors spent hours viewing and listening to FBI recordings of meetings and conversations involving Batiste and the others, he said.
"People have different takes on what they saw, on what was said and what that meant," said Agron, 46. "My personal belief is that there may have been sufficient evidence on some of them as to some of the counts."
Agron said the evidence was weakest against Lemorin, who had moved with his wife and children to Atlanta and gotten a job at a shopping mall after splitting with Batiste months before the group was arrested.
The Liberty City Seven, who included immigrants from the Dominican Republic, adhered to a sect called the Moorish Science Temple that blends elements of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The case was built largely on FBI surveillance video and 12,000 telephone intercepts. One key piece of evidence was a video of the seven men taking an oath of loyalty to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in a March 2006 ceremony.
Also, the group's leader, Batiste, 33, was overheard talking about starting a "full ground war" against the U.S. government by bringing down the 110-story Sears Tower, an attack he said would be "as good or greater than 9/11."