The Miami Herald
Dec. 13, 2003
Hijack verdict a personal one for courtroom

Lawyers defending six Cuban men convicted of air piracy identify with their clients because of their own families' passage into exile.


KEY WEST - Defense lawyers fought back tears. Family members strained to understand snippets of a foreign process played out in a foreign tongue. And one little girl, dressed in her Sunday best and squirming on a hard courtroom bench, wondered why she was not allowed to run into her father's arms.

For the people who knew and loved the six Cuban men tried and convicted Thursday for hijacking a DC-3 aircraft to Key West, the eight-day trial resonated infinitely deeper than the antiseptic theater of legal motions, objections and denials that formed the trial's building blocks.

For three-quarters of the defense team, representing six young Cubans desperate to flee their homeland was deeply personal, and wounding.

''It could have been my son,'' Israel Encinosa, the lawyer for Alvenis Arias Izquierdo, said Wednesday, eyes reddened, moments after delivering his closing argument to the jury.

Encinosa was one of three defense lawyers whose families had fled Cuba when they were children, finding passage aboard the Freedom Flights in the late 1960s.

One of the lawyers, Ana Jhones, who represented defendant Miakel Guerra Morales, was an infant when her family took the flight into exile. Encinosa was 10 years old. He visited Cuba with three defense lawyers in August in a failed bid to gather evidence for the trial. It was his first time back in almost 40 years.

Reemberto Diaz, the cynic of the defense team, nearly wept after delivering an impassioned closing argument on behalf of his client, Yainer Olivares Samon. ''Today is the most important day of his life,'' he told jurors. ``This was a freedom flight. Please give us freedom.''

Later, on a sun-dappled sidewalk blocks from the courthouse, Jhones and Encinosa stood in quiet reflection. ''When I saw Remby [Diaz] cry, I almost lost it,'' Jhones said.

The parents of a fourth lawyer, Mario Cano, who represented Eduardo Mejia Morales, arrived from Cuba in 1950 aboard a DC-3, the same type of plane the six men diverted to Key West.

The defendants, now convicted, were ''shocked'' after being arrested for redirecting the domestic flight, using kitchen knives and duct tape to bind the crew, from Cuba to Key West on March 19, Jhones said.

For the 12 jurors, the defense argument that the hijacking was a ''freedom flight'' done with the crew's complicity proved no match for the mountain of evidence amassed by prosecutors, including confessions from three defendants. The minimum sentence for their air piracy conviction is 20 years.

Four of the hijackers' wives, who knew nothing of the plan, and two of their children accompanied the men on the flight, and are now starting new lives in Florida.

Mejia's wife, Emma Lopez, and Guerra's wife, Yusleidis Marquez, spent most of the trial huddled together on a courtroom bench, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs and popping Tic-Tacs.

Lopez, 29, and daughter Dalia, 7, live with a member of her husband's family in Miami. Lopez is the only one in her family living in Florida, and hasn't found work.


Lopez took Dalia out of school to attend the trial Tuesday. She shielded her from the sight of Mejia and the other defendants shuffling into court, handcuffed together, and told her that Daddy was dressed up because he was taking a course.

Mejia's eyes drank his daughter in.

'She asks when Papi is coming back, and says, `Mami, you always say tomorrow,' '' said Lopez hours before the verdict was reached. Afterward, she wept at the prospect of telling Dalia that her father wasn't coming back.

Marquez, 24, first lived with her brother-in-law in Miami, then moved to a friend's home in Tampa and is taking a day-care course.

Bumny Arebalos, the wife of the hijacking's ringleader, Alexis Norniella Morales, is living with his extended family in Miami, caring for their 5-year-old daughter.

Samon's wife, Zaida Miranda, 24, lives in Miami too.

For Angel Morales, older brother to both Norniella, who worked as a veterinarian in Cuba, and Guerra, who performed atop a bicycle in a musical troupe, the eight-day trial marked an agonizing passage of time.

Angel Morales, 33, gained entry to the United States three years ago after winning a visa by lottery. He lives in Miami and works as an electrician.

The sudden departure of his brothers with their wives and one child on the diverted plane last March left his mother, Cristina, crazed with worry, alone in Nueva Gerona on Cuba's Isle of Youth.


''I'm afraid to talk to her, I can't,'' Morales said Monday, four days before the verdict was reached. ``Every day that passes, my hope gets smaller and smaller.''

Morales raged against the verdict outside the courthouse Thursday afternoon, as Lopez, Marquez and Miranda clutched each other, wailing. After the cameras and reporters drifted away, they disappeared from Key West's leafy streets.

''I feel for these men and their relatives,'' one juror, Roger Bayly, wrote in an e-mail.

``But I took an oath to uphold the law. I tried to find them not guilty as I suspect there are extenuating circumstances in the case. I searched for the smallest shadow of reasonable doubt and I really wish there would have been something, but the law is clear, and they said what they said. I feel I did the right thing.''