In federal court in Key West, a jury finds that six young Cuban men seized a domestic Cuban flight and diverted it to the United States. All are found guilty of air piracy.
BY CARA BUCKLEY
KEY WEST -- Six young Cuban men were found guilty of air piracy in Key West Thursday, after jurors rejected their claim that the act was a ''freedom flight'' masterminded by airport crew.
The conviction carries a minimum prison sentence of 20 years.
As the judgment was read, the faces of the defendants -- Alexis Norniella Morales; his brother, Miakel Guerra Morales; his cousin Eduardo Mejia Morales; and their friends Neudis Infantes Hernandez, Alvenis Arias Izquierdo and Yainer Olivares Samon -- registered shock. Some wept into their hands.
In the courtroom's gallery, three of their wives, who were on the hijacked flight, began to sob.
''It was beyond our control,'' said Jeffrey Williams, one of the 12 jurors. ``I really sympathize with those people, but I couldn't do anything about it.''
Thursday's verdict, the fruit of six hours of jury deliberation, ended a grueling nine-day trial in which the court heard starkly different accounts of what transpired March 19:
Prosecutors insisted that the diversion that night of a domestic Cuban DC-3 plane to Key West was a meticulously plotted, ''old fashioned hijacking'' carried out with butcher knives, duct tape and string.
But the defense called the act a ''freedom flight'' masterminded by an airport security guard with the complicity of the copilot, Gustavo Salas. Five butcher knives tossed on to the airfield in Key West were props in a ''show,'' the defense argued, and the defendants believed that the flight's 37 passengers and crew, except for their wives, were ''on board'' with the plan.
WITNESSES FROM CUBA
The Cuban government produced four crew members for the trial, including the pilot, Daniel Blas Corria Sánchez, who testified that Norniella, the alleged ringleader, pressed a knife to his throat after the hijackers broke down the cockpit door. The flight's steward and technician said their lives were threatened after they were bound at knifepoint.
After the verdicts were read, the defendants, shackled in handcuffs, were driven from the courthouse in a white police van. Defense lawyer Mario Cano said each defendant would appeal.
''All the clients are extremely heartbroken and disappointed, but they still have faith in the judicial system that the appellate process will see them through,'' said Cano, who represented Mejia.
Reactions from family members were more pitched.
Outside the courthouse, beneath graceful bougainvillea and palm trees, Mejia's wife, Emma Lopez, dissolved into angry tears. ''Nobody realizes the abuses that we live with in Cuba,'' she wailed as television cameras zoomed in.
Prosecutors said the jury's verdict sent ''a clear message'' that the United States would not tolerate hijackings. After a second hijacking, Cuban President Fidel Castro charged that the United States is too lenient on hijackers and treats them as heroes.
However, that hijacker, Adermis Wilson Gonzalez, was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a federal court in Miami in September.
''Although we are sympathetic to people wanting to come to the United States, we will not tolerate violence or the threat of violence in order to do it,'' said Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry C. Wallace on Thursday. ``We will vigorously prosecute those people who endanger people on flights in order to come to the U.S.''
Both sides pieced together wildly divergent accounts of what happened before and during the 75-minute flight, which was scheduled to go to Havana but ended up in Key West under the escort of two U.S. F-15 fighter jets.
STORY OF THE KNIVES
Competing explanations were given for how five butcher knives were smuggled aboard and wielded; about whether the plane carried extra gas to fuel its flight to the United States; about whether an ax was used; about whether the cockpit door was body-slammed by the hijackers or helped off its hinges by a complicit crew; and about why maps of South Florida were found in the cockpit, which the prosecutors described as normal, and the defense as a red flag.
Both sides were also handicapped going into the trial.
Confessions from three defendants were thrown out because the FBI failed to read them their Miranda rights.
Defense lawyers were not able to interview witnesses in Cuba, and the Cuban government refused to produce nongovernment witnesses. Nor could the defense mention Cuba's political or economic conditions, a defense tactic used in earlier hijacking trials that ended in acquittals.
Up to the last moment, Judge James Lawrence King denied each of the defense's requests for a mistrial. Thursday morning, juror No. 12 attempted to shake Wallace's hand, a breach of protocol, the defense argued, that should result in mistrial or the juror's removal. But at 12:40 p.m., King denied both motions. Five minutes later, King learned that a verdict had been reached.
Each defendant was charged with four counts: air piracy, interfering with a flight crew, and conspiracy to commit both. Norniella, Guerra and Infantes were found guilty on all four counts; Mejia and Olivares were found guilty of everything but interfering with a flight crew; and Arias was found guilty only of air piracy, the most serious offense.
Cuban activists reacted to the verdict with sadness.
''All we've done today is convict victims,'' said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. ``I don't condone hijacking, but what kind of hijacker brings his wife on board, his family along? They weren't trying to destroy a building, or slam into a military installation. They were trying to escape.''
Sentencing is set for Feb. 26 in Miami.