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.
I explored McMahon's work, which was impressive, and saw that Lenard truly did seem to shut down the defense at nearly every turn, even if it seemed blatantly unfair.
In my previous article, I quoted McMahon saying, "If I was one of the lawyers, I'd be in jail for contempt right now. I would be ranting and raving. It's like the judge is saying, 'They're terrorists, so let's throw out the rulebook.' "
The story was published before the first trial ended in a hung jury. Federal prosecutors complained to the judge about the article. Lenard grilled Levin about the story in the courtroom without the jury present.
Immediately, McMahon was fearful that Lenard might not authorize payment of his work. Because Abraham is indigent, his defense is being paid by the government, and all money paid out must first be authorized by Lenard, a former Dade County prosecutor appointed by Bill Clinton in 1995.
Attorney Levin, who was surely afraid the judge might dock his own pay, truthfully told the judge that he had no contact with me regarding the article. That's when Lenard's wrath came down squarely on McMahon — and it came, literally, in a footnote.
Lenard deprived McMahon of his hard-earned money in the footer of a sealed budget document. "The Court will not recommend approval of any funds for Mr. Abraham's investigator during the first trial, Rory McMahon, due to Mr. McMahon's violation of the Court's rules during the first trial," the judge wrote.
The problem with the ruling is that McMahon never broke a court rule. The rule she cites forbids lawyers who practice in federal courts of the Southern District of Florida from releasing any information that might "interfere with a fair trial or otherwise prejudice the due administration of justice."
First, McMahon was trying to bring justice and fairness to the trial, not the other way around. Second, he's not a lawyer, and nowhere in the court's rules does it say private investigators are forbidden from releasing information.
Levin filed multiple appeals to Lenard's ruling in which he tried to explain the P.I.'s role in the article and his value to the Liberty City trial, writing that McMahon had "led the investigation and did the majority of the work."
The argument didn't impress Lenard, who made her final ruling this past December 19, denying McMahon compensation for work on the case (though she did authorize $985 in expenses).
She also barred McMahon from participating in the second and third trials.
The judge's action seems, in a perverse way, a fitting coda to the ridiculous case. During a trial that is supposedly about preserving America and its way of life, the judge basically fines a man a large sum of money and bans him from the trial for speaking out.
Sounds more like Iran or North Korea.
The final ruling means the P.I. basically has no hope of being paid for his work — something that isn't easy for McMahon, a husband and father with a mortgage, during these tough economic times. And he's taken the gloves off when it comes to Lenard. In January, he asked Congressman Alcee Hastings' office to investigate Lenard, charging that she had denied the Liberty City defendants their right to a fair trial and was guilty of malfeasance.
Hastings, however, passed the buck. Because McMahon lives in U.S. Rep. Ron Klein's office, Hastings forwarded the request to Klein, a lethargic and uninspired representative who has yet to respond.
Lenard, meanwhile, is now presiding over the third trial, which itself is an outrage after two juries have already chosen not to convict. The prosecution apparently will keep going until it manages to get its way.
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And the juries were surely influenced by McMahon's work, or at least the bits and pieces of it the attorneys were able to get past the judge.
So even though his work went unpaid, it wasn't in vain, and it hasn't been forgotten. In fact, Levin's defense in the Liberty City Seven case has been celebrated by colleagues. In June, he's scheduled to give a panel discussion on the Liberty City case at the annual conference of the National Association of Legal Investigators. Accompanying him will be McMahon.
Levin, along with other Liberty City lawyers, also recently won the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' Rodney Thaxton "Against All Odds" Award, which is given to the attorney who "epitomizes the courage to stand apart (and often alone) as liberty's last champion."
After the award was announced February 22, Levin sent off an email to McMahon: "You own a piece of this. Thanks."