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How much does freedom of speech cost when applied to the now-infamous Liberty City terror trial?
For one private investigator who worked long and hard on the case, Rory McMahon, the bill came to $9,000. For making the mistake of speaking his mind, the veteran P.I. was also banned from the case.
That's the punishment levied against McMahon by U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard, who handled the two previous Liberty City terrorism trials and is presiding over the third that's playing out now at the federal courthouse in Miami. Lenard refused to authorize payment to McMahon for work he'd done while leading the investigation for the Liberty City defense and forbade him from working on the case ever again.
McMahon's crime: He had the nerve to criticize the judge during the first trial in a story of mine in New Times ("Have Terror, Will Travel," November 22, 2007).
Because federal judges have near-dictatorial power in their courtrooms, there's not a thing McMahon, a former federal probation officer, can do about it, the First Amendment be damned.
"Initially I was totally shocked," McMahon said of his reaction to Lenard's withholding him pay for 180 hours of work over the course of several weeks. "But I know that federal judges can act with impunity and there is no accountability, so I guess I shouldn't have been."
McMahon's story is a cautionary tale for anyone involved in the justice system. The disheartening lesson: Keep your mouth shut.
He became part of the case back in 2007, when Miami defense attorney Albert Levin hired him to work on behalf of Liberty City defendant Patrick Abraham, an impoverished 20-something Haitian immigrant with no prior criminal record. Abraham was swept up in the case the Bush administration once hailed as a rare victory in the War on Terror.
Then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez famously claimed during a nationally televised news conference that Abraham and the rest of the so-called Liberty City Seven defendants were prepared to wage a "ground war" on the United States and that they had plans to blow up the Sears Tower. But as the facts came out, it became increasingly clear that the case was a government-cooked farce and that the men had no real capability or intent to do harm to the country.
McMahon, who has worked on other high-profile federal cases, located numerous witnesses and dug up damning evidence on the government informants who were key witnesses for the prosecution. He learned that one of the men had been involved in an extortion plot. The informant had blackmailed a man who had raped his girlfriend by promising she would drop the charges in exchange for cash. On top of that, the informant had been charged in Miami with beating the same girlfriend.
The other key government witness was once banned from FBI work after failing a polygraph test in another federal case. McMahon found a former FBI supervisor, James Wedick, who was willing to testify that the informant never should have been used in the Liberty City case.
It was the two dubious informants who lured the seven defendants (one has since been acquitted) into the terrorism conspiracy. To entice the dirt-poor group of men into a fictitious al Qaeda plot, the informants promised them $50,000 while federal agents directed the farce from behind the scenes.
With hopes of getting the money, the ragtag group of defendants famously pledged allegiance to al Qaeda. But they never had weapons or explosives or the know-how to blow up anything. It was all, says McMahon, a ludicrous cat-and-mouse game.
But the ensuing trial was no game — the defendants each faced 70 years in prison if convicted of terrorism charges. McMahon says that in his 30 years as both a federal officer and a private eye, he has never been more convinced of a defendant's innocence than Abraham's.
He knew that the revelations about the informants were potential bombshells, so he was outraged when Lenard refused to allow the jury to hear any of them (though Levin artfully managed to get some of the pertinent facts in).
It seemed to be part of a pattern of the judge kneecapping the defense. Lenard, during the first trial in late 2007, ruled against the defense at nearly every turn. An extreme example came when one of the defendants had to go to the bathroom. Lenard became irate about it, saying it would throw off her schedule.
"The guy couldn't hold it any longer, and she threw an absolute hissy fit," McMahon says. "Like someone can control their bladder during ten hours in a courtroom. I was majorly disappointed with the way the trial was being conducted. By the end of it, I was disgusted by the blatant disregard for the defense and the favoritism shown the prosecution. I never saw a judge act the way she acted. It was unexplainable. It was bizarre."
As that first trial was winding along, I bumped into McMahon, whom I knew from previous cases, at the Miami Book Fair. He told me that the Liberty City defendants weren't getting a fair shake and that I needed to look into the trial.