Even Jokes Will Be Taken Seriously


The trial of the Liberty City Seven, the hapless band of Moorish Science Temple followers in Miami who were encouraged to talk about terrorism by a government informant, ended yesterday in the acquittal of one defendant and mistrials for the rest:

Jury foreman Jeff Agron, a 46-year-old attorney, told reporters outside the federal courthouse that the 12 jurors were split evenly in the four votes they took since they began deliberations Dec. 3.

"People have different takes on what they saw, on what was said and what was meant," Agron said, referring to the clandestinely taped videos and intercepted phone calls presented to the jury.

The most controversial piece of evidence involved a video showing [FBI informant Elie] Assad conducting a ceremony in which [alleged ringleader Narseal] Batiste's six followers swore an oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda. The ringleader already had pledged himself to the terrorist group in an earlier conversation wiretapped by the government.

The pledges were little more than play acting, since the seven men were never actually in contact with Al Qaeda. Assad, who set the whole investigation in motion, pretended to be an intermediary for the organization and suggested attacks for the group to carry out. Although the men talked about blowing up the Sears Tower, they never took any action toward that goal. One defense attorney called the Liberty Seven's alleged plot "a script written, produced, and directed by the government," and prosecutors conceded the group was more "aspirational than operational."

A law professor quoted by the Los Angeles Times says "the government has a dilemma in this kind of situation": If it acts too late, it may fail to prevent an attack; if it acts too soon, it may not have enough evidence to obtain convictions. Fair enough, but these guys were nowhere near carrying out an attack; they did not have the knowledge, the skills, or the equipment to do so, and it seems their aspirations never went beyond loose talk. The government plans to try six of them again anyway. Its approach to this case is reminiscent of the TSA policy regarding airline passengers' allusions to guns or bombs: Even jokes will be taken seriously.