California judge vacates conviction in 13-year-old Lodi terror case of Hamid Hayat
American Muslim community has welcomed a landmark ruling overturning the conviction and 24-year sentence of Hamid Hayat, a Lodi resident convicted in 2006 on terrorism-related charges.
In a stunning decision on Tuesday (July 30), the Senior United States District Judge Garland Burrell Jr., who oversaw the trial and conviction of accused Lodi terror suspect Hamid Hayat 13 years ago has ordered the conviction and sentence vacated.
Burrell’s decision comes seven months after U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes issued a 116-page recommendation to Burrell that the conviction be vacated because of ineffective representation by his original defense attorney, a woman who at the time had never tried a criminal case in federal court.
Barnes’ recommendation followed weeks of testimony in a 2018 hearing in which his attorney hammered home his contention that the FBI had coerced Hayat into false confessions, that the training camp he supposedly visited was not even open at the time he was in Pakistan and that alibi witnesses who could prove his innocence were not produced at the original trial.
Hamid Hayat’s family begs for his freedom
The family of Hamid Hayat made a tearful plea Wednesday for the federal government to show mercy and release him from prison in the wake of a federal judge’s order vacating his 14-year-old conviction.
“I want to tell the government, ‘Please, end this now and release my brother from federal prison in Phoenix, Arizona, today,” Raheela Hayat, his 24-year-old sister, said as she wept on the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown Sacramento. “Everything else has ended, please give us our brother back. We don’t need anything else, just our brother back home.”
Hayat’s family and friends gathered with supporters and one of their lawyers at the building one day after U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. ordered Hayat’s 2006 conviction and 24-year sentence vacated.
Hayat attorney Layli Shirani said the team would file a motion in federal court seeking an order for his release and that they were not concerned that prosecutors have not yet signaled whether they will oppose that and seek a new trial.
The Hayat case has been controversial from the start, when federal prosecutors announced they had broken up a terror cell in Lodi and arrested Hayat on terror charges and his father, Umer, an ice cream truck driver, on charges of lying to the FBI.
In the post-9/11 atmosphere, the announcement sent shock waves through the Muslim community in Lodi and elsewhere, especially with allegations that Hamid Hayat, then 22, had allegedly taken part in explosives and weapons training that included using photos of President George W. Bush as targets.
Umer Hayat’s jury could not reach a verdict in his case and he later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to 24-year jail.
Hayat had been accused
Hayat had been accused of attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan and planning to wage jihad on the United States.
Hayat, who was born in San Joaquin County in 1982, had visited Pakistan with his family in 2003 on what his lawyers say was a trip for his mother to receive medical treatment and to find a wife for him.
But Hayat had come to the attention of a paid government informant who can be heard on wiretaps urging Hayat to attend such a camp.
His appellate lawyers say that despite his confession – which came after hours of questioning by the FBI and is now the subject of a Netflix documentary – he never went to a camp. They also say the one he was alleged to have attended was not open at the time he was in Pakistan.
His original lawyer had never before tried a criminal case in federal court, and his legal team successfully argued in 2016 that she had failed to provide a competent defense and had not called witnesses in Pakistan who could have testified that he was never out of their sight long enough to train as a terrorist.
The case made national headlines when federal officials announced they had broken up an al-Qaida cell in Lodi, where at one point agents suspected Osama bin Laden’s No. 2 man – Ayman al-Zawahiri – supposedly had been seen.
Hayat’s defense team dismissed that notion as a fantasy created by the informant, but federal prosecutors have fought for years to keep Hayat’s conviction from being overturned, noting repeatedly that he confessed.
“Hayat repeatedly admitted that he attended a jihadi camp in 2003-2004,” prosecutors wrote in court documents in 2017. “Hayat told six agents at least six separate times that the camp he attended was in the vicinity of Balakot, in the Northwest Frontier Province.”
But his family and lawyers have always maintained that Hayat, who was a cherry picker, had nothing to do with terrorism.
Hamid was deprived of a fair trial
Hayat’s legal team, led by Riordan & Horgan, said in a statement:
“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.”
“Hamid cannot get those 14 years of his life back, but we are relieved to see the case take such a big step forward,” Hayat’s family said in a statement distributed by the Sacramento Valley office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
The council’s executive director, Basim Elkarra, said prosecutors “took advantage of anti-Muslim, post-9/11 bias to convict an innocent man.”
“We applaud Judge Burrell's decision today. After all these years, we never lost hope that Hamid's wrongful conviction would be overturned. 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 is on the rise.”