EL PASO, Texas — After deliberating for three hours, a jury of seven women and five men acquitted Luis Posada Carriles on Friday on all 11 charges of lying to immigration officials about how he entered the U.S. in 2005 and his alleged role in bombings in Cuba in 1997.
After U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone read the unanimous not guilty verdict, Posada and his three lawyers merged into a tight embrace that lasted several seconds. The federal prosecutors sat expressionless.
Posada, at a news conference, thanked the jury, his lawyers and the American justice system. He also said the acquittal should send a message to Cuba that liberty must prevail on the island.
“I feel happy,’’ said Posada, beaming. “I am supremely grateful to the United States of America, to the fairness with which I’ve been judged, to the jury that absolved me and what happened here should serve as an example for justice in my country, Cuba, which is unfortunately in the hands of a dictator.’’
The verdict was a surprise to many observers who had expected jurors to deliberate for several days and find Posada guilty on at least some counts. No one had predicted an acquittal across the board on all perjury, fraud and obstruction charges.
But precisely what swayed the jurors to the defense’s side will not be known anytime soon. Jurors declined to talk to the media and left by a side door as a group. Posada’s attorneys speculated that the jurors felt the government framed Posada and exaggerated the evidence.
“It was a total rejection of the government’s case after weeks of trial, 20-plus witnesses and hundreds of exhibits,’’ said Arturo V. Hernandez, Posada’s lead defense lawyer. “And this jury returned a verdict of not guilty in less than 120 minutes. I cannot think of another case that meets that criteria.’’
Hernandez said Posada plans to return to Miami and his family in a few days.
Several Cuban-American leaders in Miami said that while surprised at the verdict, Posada Carriles got something most Cubans don’t: a fair day in court. They stressed that the prolonged trial dragged the community into a by-gone era most had happily left behind.
“We are glad for Posada, at the end of the day he is a man who has struggled during his entire life for Cuba,” said Jose “Pepe” Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation. “This whole circus of a trial brought us back to the past, to things that happened or could have happened many years ago. The Cuban people, in Cuba and here, definitely are taking other paths to confront the regime, paths that are non-violent. That’s the positive thing of all of this.”
Cuban exile leader Carlos Saladrigas said it’s time to move on.
“We will have to heal old wounds and this is one of them,” Saladrigas said. “There were a lot of issues over the years that looked at in today’s light, don’t make sense. We can go back second-guessing 20 or 30 years ago. I think it’s time for the whole Cuban nation to begin moving forward, not taking steps backward.”
University of Miami Institute of Cuban and Cuban American Studies senior fellow Andy Gomez stressed that Posada got his day in court.
“He was given the opportunity to present his side. Are Cubans on the island allowed to do that?” Gomez said. “It does surprise me a bit, but he was acquitted based on the evidence that was presented to the court and the jury.”
Acquittal caps a slow-moving trial that lasted 13 weeks and featured 33 witnesses from the prosecution and the defense. The acquittal also closes a chapter in the long Posada legal saga in the United States in which federal authorities have been thwarted several times in efforts to deport him or convict him of a crime.
Since Posada was first arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Miami on May 17, 2005, federal efforts to remove the 83-year-old former CIA operative have failed. An immigration judge in El Paso ordered that Posada be deported to any country except Cuba and Venezuela, but no other country has shown a willingness to take him.
Then in early 2007, Posada was indicted for naturalization fraud over allegedly lying about how he entered the country. Judge Cardone threw out that verdict later n 2007 arguing that Posada had been entrapped by the federal government during his citizenship interview.
An appeals court then reinstated the indictment and the federal government added the perjury charges connected to the Cuba bombings in 2009. Now that effort has failed as well.
“This was not a victory just for me or my lawyers who zealously defended me,’’ Posada said. “But it was also for my people.’’
Jurors began their deliberations Friday morning at around 9 a.m.
By 11:57 a.m. they sent a note to Judge Cardone saying they had reached a verdict.
Had the jurors found Posada guilty on all charges, he might have faced five to eight years in prison.
Despite the acquittal, Posada may not walk a totally free man. A pending deportation order against him may prompt federal immigration authorities to require that he report regularly to an immigration office, as if he were on permanent supervised release.
Hernandez, the Posada lawyer, urged federal authorities to drop all investigations and potential future cases against his client.
“It’s time for the government to stop persecuting Mr. Luis Posada Carriles,’’ said Hernandez. “Leave my client alone.’’
Posada was not charged with placing the bombs or organizing the bombing campaign at Cuban tourist sites 14 years ago or with sneaking into the country illegally six years ago.
The 11-count federal indictment accused him of lying to immigration officials in his asylum and citizenship applications about whether he played a role in the Cuba bombings and about how he sneaked into the country.
Some of the charges also accused Posada of lying to immigration officials about a Guatemalan passport that he may have used to enter Mexico en route to the United States.
(Miami Herald staff writer Frances Robles contributed to this report.)