Results of 9/11/20 Hearing in George Floyd Criminal Cases

Information about what happened at the 9/11/20 hearing is provided by many media reports.[1] Here is a summary of those reports, again following the court’s Agenda for the hearing.

State’s Motions

Joint Trial. The State’s arguments were presented by Special Assistant Attorney General Neal Katyal, the famous attorney, law professor and commentator from Washington, D.C. He argued that the evidence against all four defendants is similar, that witnesses and family members are “likely to be traumatized by multiple trials” and that the interests of justice necessitate a single trial because separate trials would taint future juries. He also said, “The defendants watched the air go out of Mr. Floyd’s body together. And the defendants caused Mr. Floyd’s death together.”

Thao’s attorney responded to the last point by arguing that the jury pool already has been tainted by comments about the case by Attorney General Ellison and others.

A St. Paul attorney who is not involved in the case, Paul Applebaum, said, “it’s going to be tough for the defense attorneys to get the cases separated, partly because it would be difficult for Chauvin to blame the other officers for the charges of murder and manslaughter against him, but also because of the burden of holding four separate trials.”

Aggravating Factors for Upward Sentencing. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank argued that Floyd was particularly vulnerable because he was handcuffed and pinned to the ground. Judge Cahill expressed some skepticism of this point by asking whether what happens during an encounter qualifies for this purpose.

In  its Notice of Intent To Offer Other Evidence of 9/10/20, the State said it intended to offer evidence of Chauvin’s eight prior instances of use of excessive force, including use of  neck and upper body restraints.  In four of those, Chauvin allegedly used them “beyond the point when such force was needed under the circumstance,” an indication of his pattern, including his restraint of Floyd.[2]

Defendant’s Motions

 Motions for Change of Venue. Judge Cahill said it was too early to decide on a change of venue for the trial. He noted that Hennepin County District Court has been sending questionnaires to potential jurors to complete at home because of COVID risks and for the sake of expediency and that the court could start polling potential jurors ahead of the scheduled March 8 trial.

But two of the defense attorneys argued that the questionnaires should be completed in person at the courthouse because it carries more weight and meaning. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank agreed.

In response to defense arguments about adverse public opinion in Hennepin County, the Judge asked one of them, “There really isn’t a country, would you agree, or a state in this country where there hasn’t been a lot of publicity about George Floyd’s death?”

Jury Sequestration. The Judge said “it would be almost cruel to keep them in on weeks at a time. Instead, he suggested they be “semi-sequestered:”  jurors drive to court each day for deputies to escort them from their vehicles to a secure elevator, have their lunches brought in to the jury room and then have them escorted back to their vehicles.

Motion to Disqualify HCAO [Hennepin County Attorney’s Office]. From the bench Judge Cahill said the HCAO’s work “sloppy” because they sent prosecutors to question the medical examiner, making them witnesses in the case. Therefore, he disqualified County Attorney Freeman and three assistants who questioned the Examiner because they are potential witnesses. However, others from the Office were not disqualified.

Afterwards Freeman and the Minnesota Attorney General requested reconsideration of this decision, which Judge Cahill granted. The request stated, “Any suggestion by Judge Cahill that the work of . . . [two Assistant County Attorneys] was sloppy was incorrect. The . . .[HCAO] fully stands by the work, dedication and commitment of two of the state’s best prosecutors. That third party mentioned by Judge Cahill does not need to be a non-attorney. [The two attorneys in question] asked to leave the case on June 3 and Frank [the other attorney in question] is the attorney of record, making . . .[the other two attorneys] valid third-parties and eligible to be called as witnesses by the defense. This HCAO decision is consistent with the relevant Minnesota Supreme Court case.

Rule 404 Evidence Motions. The Judge denied defense’s intent to offer evidence regarding Floyd’s arrest and conviction in Texas as it was irrelevant. He also denied the defense request for evidence regarding Floyd’s 05/06/19 medical incident at the Hennepin County Medical Center although he said it could come up at a later date.

Administrative Matters

Jury Selection. The Judge said that he anticipates jury selection will take two weeks with each prospective juror to take the witness stand for questioning by the attorneys.

COVID-19 Restrictions. The Judge said these restrictions would be in place with overflow rooms for family and press.

Trail Length. The Judge said he anticipates a four-week trial.

Conclusion

Although I was not in the courtroom to observe the Judge, the journalists’ reports suggest that the Judge is leaning towards a consolidated trial of all four defendants in Hennepin County under his supervision.

During the 3.5 hour hearing a highly organized, peaceful group of several hundred protesters gathered in front of the heavily fortified Family Justice Center. At first they laid silently on the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds, which was the initially reported duration of the police pinning of Floyd on the pavement on May 25th (that figure was incorrect; the corrected number is seven minutes and 46 seconds).[3] When they rose, Marvin Gaye’s recorded voice sang, “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying” (the first verse from the late singer’s 1970 song “What’s going on”).

The protesters then repeatedly chanted, “Indict, Convict, Send These Killer Cops to Jail. The Whole Damn System Is Guilty As Hell!” Another call was “Say his name!” with the “George Floyd” response. Another: “Who killed him?” and “MPD.” The messages on their signs included the following: “No clemency for killer kkkops” and “Recall Freeman” and a reconfigured MPD badge to say “Murderous City of Lakes Police.”

When Lane and Kueng and their attorneys left the building, they were met by protestors yelling “Murderer!” The crowd then remained until Floyd’s family members left the building, and many of the protestors turned into a dance line, including the Electric Slide.

The protestors apparently are not aware that their protests are ammunition for the defendants’ arguments for transferring the cases to another county, where emotions are not so virulent. The protestors should adopt a different strategy.

After the hearing, Ben Crump, an attorney for the Floyd family, publicly expressed outrage over defense suggestions that Floyd’s use of drugs or earlier run-ins with the police were relevant to the killing of Floyd. “The only overdose was an overdose of excessive force and racism. It is a blatant attempt to kill George Floyd a second time.”

=================================

[1]  Xiong & Olson, Judge disqualifies some in Mike Freeman’s office for ‘sloppy work’ in George Floyd case, StarTribune (Sept. 11, 2020); LIVE UPDATES: Tentative 2-week jury selection, 4-week trial format for George Floyd case, kstp.com (Sept. 11, 2020); Judge In Floyd Case Disqualifies Members of Hennepin co. Attorney’s Office, minnesota.cbslocal.com (Sept. 11, 2020); Olson, Protestors confront former Minneapolis police officers with shouts of ‘murderer,’ StarTribune (Sept. 11, 2020); Protestors Shout At Former MPD Officers As They Exit Pretrial Hearing in George Floyd Case, minnesota.cbslocal.com (Sept. 11, 2020); Collins & Williams, George Floyd killing: Judge disqualifies Freeman from cops’ trial, MPRNews (Sept. 11, 2020); Read Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s response to being disqualified from George Floyd case, StarTribune (Sept. 11, 2020); Furber, Arango & Eligon, Police Veteran Charged in George Floyd Killing Had Used Neck Restraints Before, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2020); Bailey, Prosecutors allege former Minneapolis officer used neck restraint in several other cases before George Floyd’s death, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2020); George Floyd’s Family Lawyer Pushes Back on Police Claims (video), N.Y.Times (Sept. 11, 2020); Officers charged in George Floyd killing seek to place blame on one another, Guardian (Sept. 11, 2020).

[2] State’s Notice of Intent To Offer Other Evidence, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin county District Court Sept. 10, 2020).

[3] Revised Length of Time for Minneapolis Police Restraint of George Floyd. dwkcommentaries.com (June 18, 2020).

 

Preview of  the 9/11/20 Hearing in George Floyd Criminal Cases

This preview will follow the Agenda for the 9/11/20 hearing in the four George Floyd criminal cases that has been set by the Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill.[1]

State’s Motions

  1. Motion for Joint Trial[2]

On August 12, the State asked the court to consolidate all four of the cases for one trial on the grounds that the charges and evidence in all four cases are similar; that there would be less negative impact on witnesses and family members; the defenses of the four ex-officers were not antagonistic; and the interests of justice would be advanced.

Unsurprisingly all of the four defendants are opposing this motion. Here is a summary of their arguments: Chauvin: other defendants likely to blame Chauvin, whose defenses are likely to blame the others and thus they are mutually antagonistic; trying Chauvin first is the sensible approach which would dictate the need for, and scope of, any other trials. Kueng: different evidence on whether and how the defendants worked in close concert; no particularly vulnerable witnesses; antagonistic defenses; interests of justice do not favor joinder. Lane: likely antagonistic defenses with each defendant having different version of what happened and who is to blame, forcing jury to choose between defendants’ testimonies. Thao: Minnesota has favored separate trials; unknown if “overwhelming majority” of evidence will be same in all the cases; Thao did not work in close concert with the others; impact on Floyd family is not a factor; nature of Floyd’s death does not favor joinder; antagonistic defenses are highly likely; COVID-19 favors separate trials with smaller gatherings at each.

  1. Motion to Submit Aggravating Factors to Jury (Blakely)[3]

Under Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 2996 (2004), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial can be violated any time the court imposes a sentence greater than that called for in the guidelines, even when the sentence imposed is below the maximum punishment permitted by the legislature.

On August 28, the State gave notice of its intent to seek an upward sentencing departure for Chauvin on the grounds that Floyd was particularly vulnerable and was treated with particular cruelty by Chauvin, that Chauvin abused his position of authority, committed the crime as part of a group of three or more offenders who actively participated in the crime and in the presence of multiple children.

  1. Motion for Expert Witness Disclosure[4]

On August 28, the State moved for establishing deadlines of disclosure of expert witnesses with the following suggestions: Initial Expert Disclosures (12/08/20) and full Expert Disclosures (01/08/21).

Defendants’ Motions

  1. Motions for Change of Venue[5]

All four defendants have moved for change of venue with the following arguments: Chauvin (excessive pretrial publicity in Twin Cities); Lane (transfer to Washington or Dakota County because fair trial impossible in Hennepin County); Thao (fair trial impossible In Hennepin County; change to St. Louis, Clay or Crow Wing County); Kueng (prejudicial publicly in Hennepin County; change to  another county “outside the seven-county metro area, such as Stearns County or another county with appropriate facilities and demographics”).

  1. Jury Sequestration and Anonymity Motion[6]

On August 28, Thao moved for jury sequestration and juror anonymity due to “the notoriety of the case.”

  1. Motion to Disqualify HCAO [Hennepin County Attorney’s Office][7]

The only apparent motion to disqualify the HCAO was filed on August 6 by the attorney for Kueng on the ground that the County Attorney had made prejudicial comments about the defendants, and the very next day (August 7) Judge Cahill denied the motion.

Thus, this must be an erroneous agenda item.

  1. Rule 404 Evidence Motions[8]

On August 27, Kueng gave notice that he may offer at trial evidence regarding  (1) the circumstances of (a) Floyd’s 05/06/19 arrest by MPD; (b) Floyd’s 05/06/19 medical intervention at Hennepin County Medical Center; and (c) Floyd’s 08/09/07 arrest and subsequent conviction in Texas for Aggravated Robbery with a Deadly Weapon.

  1. Discovery Motions[9] On August 24, Thao filed a motion to compel discovery of the following regarding the investigation and death of Floyd; (1) complete Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office file; (2) any and all reports and autopsies performed by Dr. Michael Baden; (3) any and all reports and autopsies performed by Dr. Allecia Wilson; and (4) entire Office of the Armed Forces Medical examiner file.

On August 28, Chauvin filed a motion for the State’s disclosure of (1) body worn camera/audio from MPD CN-201 9-127538 from Floyd’s arrest; (2) files pertaining to Floyd’s cooperation as an informant for the MPD, FBI or any other state or federal law enforcement agency; (3) files documenting Floyd’s activity as a gang member or affiliate within the past five years; (4) information regarding Floyd’s 05/06/19 drug possession/sale investigation; (5) training materials with active imbedded links to video portions; and (6) index to State’s document disclosures.

Administrative Matters

  1. Jury Selection
  • Method
  • Preemptory Challenges
  1. In-Court Presence/COVID-19 Restrictions
  2. Overflow rooms/Audio-Visual Coverage
  3. Overnight/Special Transcript Requests
  4. Trial Length/Daily Schedule

Substantive Matters

The Judge already has announced that the only substantive matters—the four defendants’ motions to dismiss for alleged lack of probable cause for the criminal charges—will be decided on the briefs and factual record without argument at the hearing.[10] The only new details on these motions is the State’s recent opposition to Defendant Kueng’s dismissal motion and its future opposition to the recent Chauvin motion. [11]

=====================================

[1] Agenda for Court’s 9/11/20 Hearing in George Floyd Criminal Cases, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept, 2, 2000); Comment: More Informed Reaction to Agenda, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 7, 2020).

[2] Prosecution Requests One Trial for the Four Former Policemen Charged with Floyd Killing, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 13, 2020); Chauvin’s Memorandum of Law Opposing the State’s Joinder Motion, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Sept. 8, 2020); Lane’s Defense Objection to State’s Motion for Joinder, State v. Lane, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12951 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Sept. 8, 2020); Kueng’s Objection to the State’s Motion for Joinder, State v. Kueng Court File No. 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Sept. 8, 2020); Thao’s Memorandum in Opposition to State’s Motion for Joinder, State v. Thao, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12949 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Sept. 8, 2020);  Xiong, Attorneys for former officers in George Floyd murder case want separate trials, StarTribune (Sept. 8, 2020).

[3]  State’s Notice of Intent To Seek an Upward Sentencing Departure, State v. Chauvin, et al.,Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Aug. 28, 2020).

[4] State’s Notice of Motion and Motion for Expert Disclosure Deadlines, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Aug. 28, 2020).

[5] Chauvin’s Notice of Motions and Motions To Change Venue and Reserve Ruling, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Aug. 28, 2020); Lane’s Notice of Motion and Motion To Change Venue, State v. Lane, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12951 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Sept. 8, 2020);  Thao’s Notice of Motion and Motion for Change of Venue, State v. Thao, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12949 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct.Aug. 28, 2020); Defendant Kueng Moves for Dismissal and Change of Venue in George Floyd Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 28, 2020).

[6] Thao’s Notice of Motion and Motion To Sequester Jurors, State v. Thao, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12949 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct.Aug. 28, 2020).

[7]  Court Denies Ex-Officer Kueng Motion To Remove County Attorney from George Floyd Criminal Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 7, 2020).

[8] Kueng’s Notice of Additional Evidence, State v. Kueng, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Aug. 27, 2020).

[9] Thao’s Motion to Compel Disclosure, State v. Thao, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12949 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct.Aug. 24, 2020); Chauvin’s Notice of Motion and Motion for Disclosure, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Aug. 28, 2020).

[10] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Ex-Officer Lane Moves for Dismissal of Criminal Charges for George Floyd Killing (July 9, 2020);  Comment: Prosecutors Oppose Ex-Cop Thomas Lane’s Dismissal Motion (Aug. 12, 2020); Prosecution Opposes Lane’s Dismissal Motion (Aug. 21, 2020); Lane’s Reply to Prosecution’s Opposition to Dismissal of Complaint (Aug. 22, 2020); Ex-Officer Thao Moves for Dismissal of Criminal Charges for George Floyd Killing  (July 30, 2020); Defendant Thao’s Dismissal Motion (Aug. 25, 2020); Prosecution Opposes  Defendant Thao’s Dismissal Motion for George Floyd Killing (Aug. 27, 2020); Defendant Kueng Moves for Dismissal and Change of Venue in George Floyd Case (Aug. 28, 2020); Chauvin Motion To Dismiss Criminal Complaint (Sept. 9, 2020).

[11] State’s Response Opposing Defendant’s Motion To Dismiss for Lack of Probable Cause, State v. Kueng, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Sept. 8, 2020); Exhibits to State’s Response Opposing Defendant’s Motion To Dismiss for Lack of Probable Cause, State v. Kueng, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County Dist. Ct. Sept. 8, 2020). See generally List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: George Floyd Killing.

 

Defendant Kueng Moves for Dismissal and Change of Venue in George Floyd Case

On August 27, J. Alexander Kueng, a former Minneapolis police officer, submitted a motion to dismiss the criminal complaint against him and to change the venue of the case from Hennepin County to a county with “appropriate facilities and demographics,” such as Stearns County. [1]

Motion To Dismiss [2]

Most of the eight-page dismissal motion was a legal memorandum in support of the motion to dismiss for alleged lack of probable cause for the charges of aiding and abetting second degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Its statement of facts purports to be taken from the criminal complaint.

No Aiding and Abetting Second-Degree Murder. “The restraint used on Floyd by Chauvin was reasonable. As the complaint notes, officers are trained on how to use the neck restraint involved here. Moreover, the restraint has been found to be reasonable when the subject “actively resists,” citing Lombardo v. City of St. Louis, 956 F.2d 1009, 1013 (8th Cir. 2020).

Although the complaint does not say Floyd resisted, its description of his actions “show he resisted. He resisted and fell to the ground when Lane and Kueng tried to pick him up off the sidewalk. . . . Floyd would not voluntarily get into the squad [car]. Multiple officers tried to get him into the squad , and when Floyd continued to resist, Chauvin pulled Floyd onto the ground. Floyd continued to resist by calling out while he was on the ground. Given Floyd’s resistance, the use of neck restraint was reasonable.”

“[T]here is no evidence that Kueng knew Chauvin was going to commit a crime at the time and during the time Chauvin utilized the neck restraint. [Twice Chauvin rejected Lane’s suggestion of rolling Floyd onto his stomach, showing Chauvin did not consider his use of force to be unreasonable.] There is no evidence that Kueng knew Chauvin was going to commit or was committing a third-degree assault” or that “Kueng intended his presence to further a crime.”

No Aiding and Abetting Second-Degree Manslaughter. “Chauvin’s actions were not objective gross negligence. He used a technique that he was trained to use and that the Eighth circuit has found to be reasonable.” Nor was Chauvin’s conduct subjectively reckless. Moreover, the “complaint does not establish that Kueng knew Chauvin was going to negligently commit a crime or that he did so or that “Kueng intended his presence to further the commission of a negligent act.”

Motion To Change Venue [i3]

Kueng also moved for a change of venue from Hennepin County to another county “outside the seven-county metro area, such as Stearns County or another county with appropriate facilities and demographics.”

This motion was based upon “’potentially’ prejudicial material that has been disseminated publicly by the prosecution, creating a reasonable likelihood that a fair trial in the metro area cannot be had.” It also asserts that there have been over 1,700 local articles about these criminal cases.

=============================                                                                                      

[1] Xiong, Former officer in George Floyd case seeks change of venue, dismissal of charges, StarTribune (Aug. 27, 2020).

[2] Notice of Motion and Motion To Dismiss for Lack of Probable Cause, State v. Kueng, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County District Court August 27, 2020). Kueng also submitted a Notice of Additional Evidence regarding (a) Floyd’s May 6, 2019, Minneapolis arrest for sale and possession of large quantities of controlled substances and  his immediate medical intervention at Hennepin County Medical Center; and (b) his August 9, 2007, Texas arrest and subsequent conviction for Aggravated Robbery with a Deadly Weapon. (Notice of Additional Evidence,, State v. Kueng, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County District Court August 27, 2020).

[3] Notice of Motion and Motion To Change Venue, State v. Kueng, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12953 (Hennepin County District Court August 27, 2020).

Pretrial Hearing in Criminal Cases Over George Floyd Killing

On June 29, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill held a pretrial hearing in the George Floyd criminal cases against Derek Chauvin,Tou Thao,Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng.[1]

The judge scheduled another pretrial hearing for September 11 and for the trial tentatively to start on March 8. Although the prosecutors seem to be pushing for a consolidated trial, defense counsel are expected to request separate trials so that should be a future issue for the court to resolve.

None of the officers entered pleas at the hearing, but Lane’s attorney told the court he would be filing a motion to dismiss the case against his client for alleged insufficiency of evidence. Afterwards Kueng’s attorney filed a document with the court advising that his client intends to plead not guilty, claiming self-defense and use of reasonable and authorized force.

One of the major issues at the hearing was whether public officials’ statements about the cases might call for a change of venue from Minneapolis in Hennepin County to another county. Robert Paule, the attorney for Thao, said he was planning to make such a motion in light of public statements by Police Chief Arradondo and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Harrington, who have called Floyd’s death a “murder,” along with other statements by Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison.

Judge Cahill acknowledged these statements, and said people who are aligned with the state’s stance on the case are pushing it toward a change of venue. “It’s in everyone’s best interest” that no public statements about the case be made, the Judge said, noting that they’ve come from family, friends and law enforcement officials. “What they’re doing is endangering the right to a fair trial” for all the parties.

“They need to understand that; at this point they need to be aware of that,” Cahill said, and asked Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank if prosecutors are addressing the matter with public officials. In response, Frank said, “We are just as interested in fair trial and are acutely aware of the issues you talk about. We have asked people not to talk about this case … we’ve done our best to make the court’s concerns known to them and will continue to do so.”

The Judge also admonished two members of Floyd’s family for visibly reacting to his statements at the hearing. Afterwards George Floyd’s uncle, Selwyn Jones, told journalists he was offended by the Judge’s comments.

============================

[1] Xiong, Former officers to appear in court Monday in George Floyd killing, StarTribune (June 29, 2020); Xiong, In George Floyd case,  judge warns that public officials speaking out could force venue change, StarTribune (June 30, 2020); Neuman, Tentative Trial Date Set For Ex-Minneapolis Officers Accused in George Floyd Death, MPR News (June 29, 2020); Chakraborty, Four ex-cops Linked to George Floyd’s death appear in court, judge sets 2021 trial date, Fox News (June 29, 2020); Bailey & Berman, Ex-Minneapolis officers charged in George Floyd’s killing get tentative trial date in March, Wash. Post (June 29, 2020); Arango, In Court, Derek Chauvin’s Lawyers Say Officials Have Biased the Case, N.Y. Times (June 29, 2020); Wernau & Barrett, Officers charged in George Floyd’s Killing Appear Before Judge, W.S.J. (June 30, 2020); George Floyd judge warns he may move trials if officials keep talking about the case, Guardian (June 29, 2020).

 

 

 

U.S. Imprisonment of “The Cuban Five” and Their Recent Releases from U.S. Prison

On December 17th U.S. President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of three Cuban spies to time served and released and returned them to Cuba. They are Antonio Guerrero, 56, a U.S. citizen; Ramón Labañino, 51; and Gerardo Hernández, 49.

Antonio Guerero
Antonio Guerero
Ramón Labańino
Ramón Labańino
Gerardo Herńandez
Gerardo Herńandez

They were known as members of “the Cuban Five,”  a Cuban spy ring in South Florida in the 1990s that infiltrated Cuban-exile groups and U.S. military installations.[1] They, along with other members of the ring, tried to make themselves indispensable to the exile groups whose secrets they stole. One of the operatives worked at the Naval Air Station in Key West, while another worked undercover in Tampa.

Once their cover was blown and federal agents smashed the ring, they were arrested and jailed on September 2, 1998. Several of its members pleaded guilty to various charges, but the Cuban Five instead went to trial, starting in November 2000 and concluding in June 20001. They were convicted on all charges and sentenced in December 2001 to long prison terms although two of them after completion of their sentences were released from prison and returned to Cuba in 2013 and 2014.

Mr. Guerrero, who was born in South Florida and studied engineering in Ukraine, was originally sentenced to life plus 10 years, but later was re-sentenced to 21 years plus 10 months (262 months). Mr. Labañino is a native of Havana who studied economics at the University of Havana. Originally sentenced to life plus 18 years, he later was resentenced to 30 years.

Mr. Hernández was the only one of the group convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to two life sentences plus 15 years. American investigators accused him of having previous knowledge of the Castro government’s plans in 1966 to shoot down two Cuba-exile organization private planes that regularly flew missions from the U.S. near Cuba, killing four anti-Castro volunteers.

A fuller understanding of the Cuban Five and the recent release of the three Cuban men from U.S. prison requires an examination of (a) the events that precipitated the downing of the two planes; (b) the actions of the Cuban Five relating to those events; (c) the long, complicated history of their criminal case in U.S. federal courts; and (d) reactions to the commutation of  the three men’s sentences and their release from U.S. prison and return to Cuba.

Precipitating Events

According to one of the judges in the latest 11th Circuit decision that is discussed below, the trial evidence established that Brothers to the Rescue (“BTTR”), an anti-Castro Cuban exile group in Miami, repeatedly and knowingly had violated Cuban airspace since 1994. Here are some of the details:[2]

  • In 1994 a BTTR flight flew near the Cuban coast with a television reporter who filmed Cuban military fighter jets circling, but not firing at the BTTR plane.
  • Later in 1994, another BTTR plane flew over Cuba near Guantanamo Bay and dropped BTTR bumper stickers, and again Cuba did not fire at the plane.
  • In 1995 BTTR announced that it would commit civil disobedience in Cuban waters, and in response the U.S. State Department issued a public warning that no one should violate Cuban waters and airspace. Nevertheless BTTR proceeded to send a boat into Cuban waters and a plane flew over Havana for 13 minutes dropping anti-Castro leaflets and religious medals. Again the Cuban military did not attack the BTTR plane. [3]
  • Immediately afterwards the Cuban Government complained to the U.S. FAA and requested action to prevent violations of Cuban sovereignty and stated, “Any craft proceeding from the exterior that invades by force our sovereign waters could be sunk and any aircraft downed.” In response the U.S. State Department reiterated its warning that U.S. planes should not violate Cuban airspace and quoted the Cuban warning.
  • Nevertheless in January 1996 BTTR flew twice to Cuba and presumably over international waters dropped anti-Castro leaflets that landed in Havana. Again Cuba requested the U.S. to stop these flights. [4]

On February 24, 1996, three light civilian U.S. planes that were operated by BTTR flew from Miami to Havana. All three at one time were in international airspace close to Cuba’s territorial waters. One of them clearly flew into Cuban airspace, but was not shot down. The other two civilian planes were shot down by Cuban MIG fighters, killing three Cuban-American citizens and one non-U.S. citizen. Cuba defended its actions by contending that the planes were shot down within the territorial limits of Cuba whereas the U.S alleged that the downings had occurred over international airspace.[5] According to one of the judges in the latest 11th Circuit opinion, these two planes did not enter Cuban airspace and were shot down in international airspace, 4.8 and 9.5 miles (land miles or nautical miles?] from Cuban airspace.[6]

The concept of national and international airspace is complicated. National airspace is the area or portion of the atmosphere above a country’s territory that is controlled by that country and above a country’s territorial waters, which generally are considered to be 12 nautical miles [or about 13.8 land miles] out from the coastline of the nation. All other airspace is known as ‘international airspace.’

In any event, the two planes that were shot down were at least very close to Cuban airspace after a history of such planes entering Cuban airspace and dropping leaflets and medals and potentially dropping bombs.

On December 17, 1997, a U.S. district court entered a default judgment against Cuba for $187 million for the deaths of three of the four pilots.[7]

The Cuban Five’s Actions

The Cuban Five were not directly involved in any of the above incidents. They did not shoot down the private plane on February 24, 1996. They were not in any of the Cuban MIG fighter jets that were involved in that incident.

Instead, according to the latest 11th Circuit opinion that is discussed below, the evidence at trial established that the Five were in the U.S. as agents of the Cuban Directorate of Intelligence and members of its Wasp Network that was organized for espionage in southern Florida. The Network was to gather and report information regarding operations of U.S. military facilities, U.S. political and law enforcement agencies and U.S. nongovernmental organizations supporting regime change in Cuba, including BTTR. To that end, the Five attempted to penetrate the Miami facility of the U.S. Military’s Southern Command while one of the Five obtained employment at the Key West U.S. Naval Air Station and reported information about the Station to the Cuban Government. [8]

The 11th Circuit also stated that the trial evidence established that the mission of one of the Wasp Network’s operations, known as Operation Escorpion, was to stop flights to Cuba by BTRR.

According to the Cuban Government, the Cuban Five are patriots and Heroes of the Cuban Revolution who were acting to save American and Cuban lives from terrorists operating in Miami and to defend Cuba from attacks from the U.S.

What Happened in the U.S. Criminal Process?

In September 1998, the Cuban Five were arrested in Miami. A federal grand jury in Miami indicted them on charges of conspiracy to commit murder (of the four pilots); conspiracy to commit espionage; conspiracy to commit crimes against the U.S.; use of false identity and documentation; and being unregistered agents of a foreign government. Each of them then spent 17 months in solitary confinement before trial.[9]

In November 2000, the trial of the Cuban Five started in federal court in Miami. During the course of pre-trial proceedings the defense made five unsuccessful motions to change venue to move the trial away from Miami because of intense public hostility towards the Cuban Five.

In June 2001 the trial ended in Miami federal court with a jury verdict holding the Cuban Five guilty on all counts.[10] As none of the Cuban Five had been directly involved in shooting down the airplane in 1996, the key legal issue on the conspiracy to commit murder of three men who died in the airplane’s crash was the U.S. legal principle of conspiracy. Under U.S. law (U.S.C. sec. 1117), “If two or more persons conspire to [murder], and one or more of such persons do any overt act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be punished by imprisonment for any term of years or for life.” In simple terms, the overt act of shooting down the plane is attributed or imputed to all members of the conspiracy even though some were not directly involved in that act.

In December 2001 (three months after 9/11), the Miami federal court sentenced the Cuban Five to the previously mentioned sentences. [11] (At about the same time, the Cuban legislature declared that the Five were Heroes of the Revolution.)

In August 2005, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta unanimously reversed the convictions on the ground that is was reversible error for the trial court to deny the motions for change of venue out of Miami.[12]

A year later, August 2006, however, the entire 11th Circuit en banc, 10 to 2, overturned the panel’s decision and affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motions for change of venue and for a new trial, but remanded the case to the previous three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit to decide the following other issues on appeal:[13]

  • alleged prosecutorial misconduct regarding the testimony of a government witness and during closing argument;
  • alleged improper use of the Classified Information Procedures Act;
  • alleged improper denial of a motion to suppress fruits of searches under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act;
  • alleged Batson violations by the prosecution in striking prospective jurors on the basis of race;
  • alleged insufficiency of the evidence regarding the conspiracy to transmit national defense information to Cuba, alleged violations of the Foreign Services Registration Act, and conspiracy to commit murder;
  • alleged improper denial of a motion to dismiss Count 3 based on Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act jurisdictional grounds;
  • alleged improper denial of jury instructions regarding specific intent, necessity, and justification; and
  • alleged sentencing errors.

On June 4, 2008, that three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit resolved these issues in 99 pages of opinions. With one exception, the panel unanimously rejected all of the Five’s arguments on the merits.[14] The exception was the sufficiency of the evidence for the conviction of Hernandez for conspiracy to commit murder, where the decision to affirm the conviction was 2 to 1. The dissenter concluded that there was insufficient evidence for this charge because the Government had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he had agreed to have another agent shoot down a BTTR plane in international airspace, which is illegal, as opposed to shooting down a plane in Cuban airspace, which is legal. Another judge conceded that this issue was very close.[15]

The three-judge court also vacated the sentences of three of the Five and remanded the case forresentencing, presumably for shorter periods. The three are Labañino and Guerrero who had been sentenced to life imprisonment and Gonzalez who had received a 19 years sentence.[16]

On September 2, 2008, the 11th Circuit denied the Five’s petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc (the entire 11th Circuit). On June 15, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court denied their petition for review (denial of certiorari).[17]

On October 13, 2009, the district court reduced the sentence of Guerrero, under an agreement between the defendant and the prosecution, from life to 262 months. On December 8, 2009, the district court reduced the sentence of Labañino from life to 30 years. On that same date (December 8, 2009), the sentence of Gonzalez was reduced from 19 years to 18 years.[18] Gonzalez subsequently completed his sentence and was returned to Cuba.

After their resentencing, the three Cubans released a statement reiterating their claims of innocence and affirming, ¨We did not give one inch in our principles, decorum and honor, always defending our innocence and the dignity of our homeland.¨in addition, they asserted that they continued to reject the U.S. government´s proposal for more lenient sentences in exchange for collaboration with the U.S.¨[19]

Reactions to the Release of the Three Cubans

When the three men  returned to Cuba on December 18th after their release from U.S. prison, they were welcomed home by Cuban President Raúl Castro. A Cuban reporter said of this celebration, “The Cuban sky, which they had so longed to see, offered the first welcome to our heroes, then the breeze, the feeling of freedom… hard for their eyes to believe what was unfolding before them, hard for their hearts to bear so much joy, to see the radiant, euphoric people opening their arms to their sons, and offering them a cup of coffee. Eleven million tears were shed as the news was announced, and the photos began to appear, with Raúl welcoming them to the homeland. Who didn’t feel goosebumps along with Elizabeth as she embraced [her husband] Ramón. Who was not moved as Gerardo gazed into [his wife] Adriana’s face, and who did not feel the warmth shared by Mirta and her son Tony [upon seeing her husband Antonio Guerrero]… And what an avalanche of emotions hearing the exclamations, including, “Para lo que sea”, (For whatever may be needed), offering an exemplary lesson of genuine patriotism. Outside, in the streets, a sea of human beings welcomed them home, every corner of the nation was full of joy. Feeling the country’s greatness, it is no lie that Cubans feel our hearts swelling.”

Afterwards the three had a joyous reunion with their previously released fellow Cuban Five members.

Members of the Cuban-exile community in Florida reportedly were most upset with the release of Hernandez.  Given his conviction for conspiracy to murder and his double life sentence plus 15 years, that reaction is understandable. On the other hand, he personally did not shoot down the two BTTR planes causing the death of their occupants and was not personally involved in any other way in that incident. In addition, as at least one U.S. judge observed, there was evidence that  Hernandez did not understand or agree that the Cuban air force would shoot down a BTTR plane in international air space, which is illegal, as opposed to shooting down such a plane if it entered Cuban air space, which is legal. Moreover, Cuba had protested the prior BTTR flights to the U.S. authorities and asked the U.S. to stop such flights. Finally Hernandez had been in U.S. jail and prison for over 16 years, which is a significant punishment. Therefore, it should be possible to understand that he is not as evil as suggested by his being labeled as a convicted murderer or as a convicted murder conspirator.

The other two–Guerrero and Labañino–after 16 years in jail and prison were nearing the end of their sentences, and the commutation of their sentences to time served seemed to be less controversial to the Cuban-exile community in Florida.  They already had served their sentences in substantial part.

For this blogger, I see the commutation of the sentences of Hernandez and the other two Cubans and their release from U.S. prison and  return to Cuba as the price that had to be paid by the U.S. in order to obtain Cuba’s simultaneous release of the U.S. spy from Cuban prison. He was Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban who was a cryptologist in Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence. He had provided U.S. officials with the codes being used by the Cuban Five and the other members of the Wasp Network that lead to their being arrested in 1998. (Mazzetti, Schmidt & Robles, Crucial Spy in Cuba Paid a Heavy Cold War Price, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2014); Assoc. Press, Spy’s Parents Search for Son After Cuba-U.S. Deal, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2014).) Supposedly unrelated was Cuba’s simultaneous release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross. Obtaining Cuba’s releases of these prisoners and achieving the overall U.S.-Cuba agreement to normalize diplomatic relations and to start resolving the many bilateral issues that have accumulated over the last fifty-plus years are significant. These benefits alone, in my judgment, justify the commutations and releases of the last three of the Cuban Five.

Moreover, the previous discussion of the precipitating circumstances to the downing of the two BTTR planes and the deaths of their four occupants should help us see the Cuban perspective. The island was being threatened by previous BTTR flights and had raised legitimate complaints to U.S. authorities about those flights, all to no avail. As a result, the Cuban government was left to its own devices to protect itself, including trying to obtain information about future BTTR flights with the Wasp Network investigations of the BTTR in Florida. Moreover, the exact location of the planes when they were shot down was disputed with the Cubans asserting it was in Cuban territorial air space, which was legal. These considerations, in my opinion, provide additional reasons justifying the U.S. commutations and releases.

As a retired lawyer whose practice involved extensive experience in litigating civil cases in U.S. federal courts, I have a general respect for those courts and the U.S. civil and criminal judicial procedures, and  the prior discussion of the Cuban Five´s case in those courts convinces me that the Five had competent and dedicated defense lawyers. I have not attempted a review of the extensive trial record in order to reach my own conclusions on the legitimacy of the many complaints raised about that trial by the Cuban Five support network, by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions and by the amicus curiae briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court from Nobel laureates, international human rights groups and a former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Nevertheless, the mere existence of those complaints and concerns, without investigating or conceding their merits, are other factors that support, in my judgment, the commutations and releases of the three Cubans by eliminating these international and domestic irritants.

===============================================

[1] They are Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez, Fernando Gonzalez Llort (Rueben Campa), Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo (Manuel Viramontes), Ramón Labañino Salazar (Luis Medina) and Rene Gonzalez Sechweret. The “Cuban 5” website gives a lot of information about them and their case. http://www.thecuban5.org/who-are-the-cuban-5/

[2] Slip Opinions at 84-90, United States v. Campa, 529 F.3d 980 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008) (J. Kravitch, concurring and dissenting).

[3] Rohter, Exiles Say Cuba Downed 2 Planes and Clinton Expresses Outrage, N.Y. Times, Feb. 25, 1996.

[4] Rohter, Exiles Say Cuba Downed 2 Planes and Clinton Expresses Outrage, N.Y. Times, Feb. 25, 1996.

[5] Rohter, Exiles Say Cuba Downed 2 Planes and Clinton Expresses Outrage, N.Y. Times, Feb. 25, 1996; Rohter, Cuba Blames U.S. in Downing of Planes, N. Y. Times, Feb. 27, 1996; Crossette, U.S. Says Cubans Knew They Fired on Civilian Planes, N. Y. Times, Feb. 28, 1996; Crossette, Cuba, Citing Earlier Intrusions, Defends Downing of 2 Cessnas, N. Y. Times, March 7, 1996.

[6] Slip Opinions at 90, United States v. Campa, No. 01-17176 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008) (J. Kravitch, concurring and dissenting), http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200117176.opn3.pdf.

[7] Navarro, U.S. Judge Assesses Cuba $187 Million in Deaths of 4 Pilots, N. Y. Times, Dec. 18, 1997.

[8] Slip Opinions at 3-6, United States v. Campa, No. 01-17176 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008), http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200117176.opn3.pdf.

[9] E.g., Cuban Five, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Five; The incredible story of five men imprisoned in the United States for fighting terrorism, Judtyicia/Justice.

[10] Id.; Atlanta and the Cuban Five: A Long March Towards Justice at 1-31 (Editora Politica: Havana, 2005)[“Atlanta“]; Fernandez, United States vs. The Cuban Five: a judicial cover-up at 1-134 (Editorial Capitan San Luis: Havana 2006)[“Fernandez“]; The Perfect Storm: The Case of the Cuban Five at 85-108 (Editora Politica: Havana, 2005) [“Storm“].

[11] Id.; Atlanta at 32-51; Fernandez at 135-82; Storm at 108-09, 149-63.

[12] United States v. Campa, 419 F.3d 1219 (11th Cir. 2005) (No. 01-17176), vacated & ordered to be heard en banc, 429 F.3d 1011 (11th Cir. 2005).

[13] United States v. Campa, 459 F.3d 1121, 1126 n.1 (11th Cir. 2006)

[14] Slip Opinions at 4, 6-63, 84, United States v. Campa, No. 01-17176 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008), http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200117176.opn3.pdf.

[15] Slip Opinions at 83-99, United States v. Campa, No. 01-17176 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008), http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200117176.opn3.pdf.

[16] Slip Opinions at 63-82, United States v. Campa, No. 01-17176 (11th Cir. June 4, 2008), http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200117176.opn3.pdf.

[17] Campa v. United States, No. 08-987 (U.S. Sup. Ct. June 15, 2009).

[18] Anderson, Deal gives man accused in Cuban Five spy case reduced sentence, Miami Herald, Oct. 10, 2009; Urbina, Judge Reduces Sentence for One of Cuban Five, N.Y. Times, Oct. 13, 2009, ; Anderson, Cubans get reduced sentences for spying in US, Washington Post, Dec. 8, 2009; BBC News, US cuts Cuban spies’ jail terms, Dec. 12, 2009.

[19] Statement by Antonio, Rámon and Fernando: We will continue until the final victory, Granma (Dec. 9, 2009); The U. S. administration was forced to recognize that we did not endanger national security, Granma (Dec. 9, 2009).