One of the nation’s highest profile post-9/11 terrorism cases fully unraveled Friday, with federal prosecutors saying they won’t pursue charges after a judge last year overturned the conviction of a man who had been linked to a purported al-Qaida sleeper cell in California and spent 14 years in prison.
Hamid Hayat, a cherry picker from the community of Lodi in the Central Valley agricultural heartland, was freed in August after completing more than half his sentence on charges of providing material support to terrorists and lying to FBI agents.
A federal judge in July overturned his 2006 conviction on charges of plotting an attack in the United States after attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. The judge ruled that Hayat, who proclaimed his innocence, hadn’t received a proper defense at trial.
Hayat’s family and new legal team, led by the law firm of Riordan & Horgan, said in a statement that the case is “a stark example of how, in the post 9/11 era, the government’s effort to protect the public from terrorism could and did in this case go terribly wrong.”
Prosecutors could have appealed the judge’s decision or sought a new trial, but instead filed a brief motion to dismiss the case Friday.
“We have determined that the passage of time and the interests of justice counsel against resurrecting this 15 year old case,” they said in a statement.
Prosecutors noted that his conviction was overturned “based solely on the effectiveness of the lawyer of his own choosing.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento, along with the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Security Division, reviewed the case and the evidence that would be available during a new trial before opting not to proceed, prosecutors said.
Hayat said he didn’t initially believe it when attorney Dennis Riordan told him the case is over. “Honestly, it was like a dream,” he said in a brief statement thanking his family, legal team and other supporters “for standing by me every step of the way.”
Riordan said Hayat would not immediately comment beyond the statement.
“While we are grateful for the dismissal, the 14 years Hamid spent behind bars on charges of which he was innocent remain a grave miscarriage of justice,” his family and lawyers said in their statement. “Hamid’s exoneration is a cause for celebration, but the story of his case is tragedy that must not be repeated.”
They noted that both the federal judge and a federal magistrate found that multiple witnesses credibly testified, years after his conviction, that Hamid could not have committed the crimes.
Both judges decided “that Hamid would not have been found guilty had the powerful evidence of his innocence that won his freedom in 2019 been presented to his jury in 2006,” the attorneys and family said in their statement.
Investigators initially alleged that five men were part of an al-Qaida “sleeper cell” in Lodi.
But only Hayat, who was born in California, was convicted of terror-related crimes, while three other suspects were eventually deported without charges. Hayat’s father, an ice cream truck driver, admitted to a customs violation after a jury was unable to reach a decision on whether he lied to federal agents about his son’s activities.
U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. found that inexperienced defense attorney Wazhma Mojaddidi failed to find those alibi witnesses, who would have testified that Hayat never had time to receive terror training while visiting relatives and getting married in his ancestral village in Pakistan.
They said that the longest Hayat was absent from his family’s ancestral village of Behboodi while visiting Pakistan with family members between 2003 and 2005 was one week. That directly contracted his purported confession to attending a training camp for three to six months.
His defense attorney also should have provided a witness to testify that what prosecutors said was an incriminating note found in Hayat’s wallet was in fact a religious supplication commonly used by many Muslims, he ruled.
Bill Portanova, a defense attorney and former prosecutor not affiliated with the case, noted that prosecutors had evidence including other witness testimony and Hayat’s self-incriminating statements.
“The case was legitimately brought,” he said. “It’s not like there was a complete absence of proof.”
“This one was very high profile, so the dismissal years later attracts a lot of attention, but it doesn’t reflect poorly on the government,“ Portanova said.
He disagreed with Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento Valley office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who in a statement called the conviction an “egregious injustice.”
“An entire community was left traumatized due to prosecution taking advantage of anti-Muslim, post-9/11 hysteria,” Elkarra said.