5 Cubans demand new federal trial
In appeal, attorneys contend prosecutors' misconduct led to men's convictions of spying.
by Mike Williams
Cox International Correspondent
August 21, 2007
Reprinted from Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The long-running case of five men sent to prison for working as Cuban agents on U.S. soil returned to court Monday when their lawyers argued before a federal appeals panel in Atlanta that prosecutors made improper statements and the evidence used to convict them was insufficient.
"Every type of prosecutorial misconduct ever identified in the case law occurred here, in some cases repeatedly so," defense attorney Brenda Byrn told the three-judge 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel, asking for a new trial.
Prosecutors, however, insisted their conduct was proper and there were no grounds to overturn the convictions or order a new trial.
The case of the five Cuban men —- Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino and Gerardo Hernandez —- has stirred strong emotions on both sides of the Florida Straits. Cubans praise them as heroes defending their country, while many in Miami's exile community consider them spies out to harm U.S. interests.
Arrested in 1998, all five were convicted in 2001 on charges of working in the United States as unregistered foreign agents.
Three also were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. Their Miami trial lasted seven months, and their sentences range from 15 years to life.
In 2005, defense lawyers won an initial appeal by arguing that the trial should have been moved out of Miami because that city's large Cuban exile population made a fair proceeding impossible.
Prosecutors appealed that ruling, and the full 11th Circuit reinstated the convictions a few months later but sent the case back to the three-judge panel on other issues.
In Monday's hearing, defense attorneys focused on the most serious charges that resulted in life sentences, including conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit espionage.
The five Cubans "were never directed to obtain espionage-level information," defense attorney Richard Klugh told the panel. One of the defendants, he argued, "is serving a life sentence for what could've been published in The Miami Herald."
Prosecutor Caroline Heck Miller, however, said the agents were in "close coordination" with Cuban military and intelligence services.
Much of the argument focused on a 1996 incident in which Cuban MiGs shot down two small private planes operated by a Miami exile group called Brothers to the Rescue, killing four men in the planes.
The Cuban agents had infiltrated the group, which flew repeatedly near Cuba to spot Cuban rafters and to drop leaflets.
During the trial, prosecutors convinced jurors that Hernandez had sent information the Cuban authorities used in their plans to attack the planes.
Defense attorneys argued Monday that no evidence was presented in the trial showing Hernandez had knowledge of Cuba's plans for the attack.
Miller, however, pointed to a secret dispatch from Cuba that ordered Hernandez not to fly on the planes on several days surrounding the shoot-down, and to confirm the dates of the planned flights.
Lawyers say the three-judge panel has no deadline for its ruling on the appeal.