By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Several dozen family and friends wore looks of relief mixed with grim determination here Wednesday at a U.S. Courthouse news conference to mark a federal judge’s decision to overturn the conviction of Hamid Hayat, sentenced to 24 years for alleged terrorist activity in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy and anti-Muslim sentiment.
There was virtually no talk of the prejudice Muslims faced during that time – and even now – but it was, in effect, the proverbial “elephant in the room.”
U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell, Jr., Tuesday vacated Hayat’s 2006 sentence – he’s been in jail for 14 years – after he and other federal judges determined the young Lodi cherry picker did not have fair representation at trial, and, in fact, may have had a solid alibi to support the claim that he was no part of the supposed dangerous “sleeper” terrorist cell based just south of Sacramento.
Family members Wednesday were hopeful that Hayat would be released as soon as Thursday – his lawyers said they filed for immediate release of Hayat on his own recognizance whether or not the U.S. Attorney decides to appeal Burrell’s decision.
“We are overjoyed with the decision; we’ve been working 13 years on this,” said Layli Shirani, one of the five U.S.-based lawyers on the case. She later said a team of lawyers, journalists and others were similarly engaged in Pakistan.
“We now all just want to turn the page and bring him (Hayat) home. We’re asking for his immediate release,” she said.
The court agreed with the defense team that the Hayat’s original attorney was so inexperienced he could not possibly have had a fair trial.
More than a dozen witnesses swore Hayat – accused of attending a terrorist training camp while he was visiting Pakistan – was in the U.S. at the time. Those witnesses were never called to testify.
Evidence that the terror camp was, in fact, closed during that time Hayat supposedly visited the terror camp was also withheld from the jury. Family maintained that he did go to Pakistan, but it was related to his mother’s health needs.
“Hamid has 14 years lost, behind bars. We ask U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott and the Department of Justice to show mercy and allow this young man to be released.” said Council on American-Islamic Relations Sacramento Valley (CAIR-SV) Executive Director Basim Elkarra.
Earlier this week, Elkarra briefly addressed the political side of the story.
“At the time of Hamid’s case, the prosecution took advantage of anti-Muslim, post-9/11 bias to convict an innocent man. And this much-needed good news comes at a time when Islamophobia and bigotry as a whole (are) on the rise,” he said.
But Scott, in a statement, did not signal Wednesday he was about to give up on the case that he personally oversaw which led to the conviction of then 22-year-old Hayat. Scott’s office has fought the appeals since 2006, including claims that the FBI coerced a confession and relied too much on an informant.
“Nothing in the decision calls into question the government’s conduct in prosecuting the defendant, and we stand by that prosecution in all respects. We are in the process of reviewing our options in accordance with DOJ policies and procedures. In the meantime, Hayat’s continued detention is a determination to be made by the court,” said Scott.
“We respect the decision of the court in this case (but) (t)hat decision related only to the effectiveness of defendant’s counsel – a privately retained lawyer of Hayat’s own choosing who was found by CAIR for him – and it did not determine the question of the defendant’s guilt or innocence,” he said.
Hayat’s family displayed the raw emotion of a family that had been traumatized by the loss of a loved one.
“I just want my brother back home. He’s been innocent for a long time. I want my brother back,” said Raheela Hyatt, the sister of Hamid Hayat. She wept quietly in front of the microphones Wednesday, admitting that she and her brother were “both crying” over the phone at the news, and that he was “already packing.”
Tuesday, lead attorney for Hayat, Dennis Riordan, noted, “The court’s decision today correctly finds that Hamid was deprived of a fair trial by the failings of his inexperienced counsel, but it does much more than that. Two federal judges have found credible the testimony of multiple witnesses that Hamid could not have committed the crimes of which he was accused. That is effectively a finding of actual innocence,” said Riordan.
And Hayat’s family said in a prepared statement Tuesday, “We have been waiting 14 long years for Hamid to be freed. Hamid cannot get those 14 years of his life back, but we are relieved to see the case take such a big step forward. We miss him and hope to be reunited with him soon. We are so grateful to Hamid’s legal team, to the community and to CAIR-Sacramento Valley for their unfailing support over the years. We hope no other family has to endure this pain and sense of helplessness.”