Posted July 11, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Politics.
KEY WEST - In a U.S. verdict that has particular relevance in Cuba, a federal jury took 67 minutes Thursday to find a Cuban man guilty of air piracy after he brandished two fake grenades and forced a passenger plane to fly to Key West under U.S. fighter jet escort three months ago.
The hijacker, Adermis Wilson González, 34, now faces at least 20 years in prison.
His appointed lawyer, Stewart G. Abrams, said Thursday that he plans to appeal.
In a post-verdict news conference that was geared as much for consumption in Cuba as it was for local media outlets, U.S. Attorney Marcos Daniel Jimenez praised the work of FBI case agent Patricia J. Thompson and federal prosecutors Lilly Ann Sanchez and Seth Eric Miles.
‘‘The verdict confirms that the U.S. can and will successfully prosecute hijack cases to the fullest extent of the law,’’ said the Cuban-born U.S. attorney.
While the plight of the Cuban people is lamentable, Jimenez said, the Cuban government is wrong when it accuses the United States of ‘‘going light’’ on hijackers who commandeer airplanes and boats to Florida.
‘‘This case and this verdict shows that nothing can be further from the truth,’’ Jimenez said.
On March 31, clutching two ceramic grenades, Wilson took over a state-owned Cubana Airlines plane on its final descent during a flight from the Isle of Youth on the island’s south coast to Havana’s Jose Martí International Airport.
Wilson demanded that the 48-seat Antonov AN-24 head for Naples, where his common-law wife had relatives, but the aircraft had only enough fuel for about 15 more minutes of flight.
What followed was an impasse at the Havana airport that drew the personal negotiations of Cuban President Fidel Castro and James Cason, the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba. After attempts to convince Wilson to give up failed, the plane was refueled and allowed to proceed to Key West on the morning of April 1.
The hijacking was the second in two weeks from Cuba to Florida and was followed by a failed attempt by a group of armed Cuban hijackers to force a ferry to Florida. Three men involved in that incident were executed by a Cuban firing squad a short time later.
Thursday’s verdict was rendered by a four-woman, eight-man panel. Wilson is scheduled to be sentenced in Miami on Sept. 19 by U.S. District Judge Shelby Highsmith.
Abrams declined to comment specifically on the jury’s decision.
The verdict followed a verbal ruling earlier in the day by Highsmith barring Wilson from testifying that he changed his mind about the hijacking when the plane stopped in Havana but was afraid to surrender for fear of his life.
‘‘Testimony of duress, necessity or justification will not be allowed,’’ Highsmith said. The judge also warned Wilson and his lawyer that if he violated that edict, Wilson would be ejected from the Key West courtroom.
Addressing Highsmith, but not jurors, Wilson said he would not take the stand as scheduled, because of the judge’s ban.
‘‘I would not be able to testify freely,’’ Wilson told Highsmith in Spanish through a translator. Abrams told reporters he had hoped his client would be allowed to talk about “what happened in Cuba on the ground and what his state of mind was at the time.’‘
U.S. Attorney Jimenez said Highsmith made the right decision in limiting Wilson’s ability to claim he changed his intent in the middle of the hijacking. ‘‘Clearly we don’t think the facts justified that defense,’’ Jimenez said.
Highsmith’s decision was well within his purview, according to Kendall Coffey, South Florida’s former U.S. attorney.
‘‘The court has no obligation to allow irrelevant testimony to be admitted simply because it’s offered by a defendant on the stand,’’ Coffey said.
Wilson wept outside the courtroom during deliberations but then said nothing and showed no emotion as the verdict was read.
Earlier in the day, he waved in the courtroom to his common-law wife, Leidys Fernandez Bermudez, 19, and stepson Andys Raynell Perez, 3. Both accompanied him on the hijacked flight and have remained in the United States.
Surrounded by television cameras after the verdict, Fernandez choked back emotion.
‘‘He didn’t do anything. He just wanted to be free, the same way all Cubans want to be,’’ she said.
But prosecutors argued that Wilson—who told an FBI agent that he recently worked as a construction foreman—knew exactly what he was doing when he held dozens of passengers hostage for hours in a cramped plane with little oxygen and no food or water.
They dubbed the Havana airport standoff ‘‘the 15-hour night of terror,’’ as Wilson wrapped a phone cord around the neck of a female passenger, herded a group of men who almost suffocated to a cargo compartment, and continued to rant that he would explode the grenades if the plane wasn’t refueled.
Cuban authorities also helicoptered Wilson’s brother Quiadesmel Wilson González from the Isle of Youth to talk to his brother at the plane. Wilson identified the brother as a Cuban state security officer in an initial FBI interview, according to a court document obtained by The Herald. The alleged occupation of Wilson’s brother was never disclosed to jurors.
Abrams, Wilson’s attorney, contended that Wilson didn’t realize what a mess he was in until too late, and was forthcoming with investigators about his actions once he reached Key West. Wilson may have intended to hijack the plane from the Isle of Youth, Abrams seemed to argue, but had a change of heart in Cuba after it was too late.
The government, and jurors apparently, disagreed.
‘‘He did not do it by accident,’’ prosecutor Sanchez told jurors Thursday. “He did what he wanted to do on that day selfishly.’‘
Wilson explicitly confessed the hijacking plot to federal investigators, providing enough details to fill a 10-page FBI document. The report includes a number of alleged specifics on how the plot unfolded that were never heard by jurors.
Among Wilson’s alleged revelations:
• Wilson told FBI agent Thompson that he knew about the earlier March 19 hijacking because his sister had been scheduled to be on that flight but missed it.
• He said he originally had crafted three ceramic grenades, but tossed the third one in a trash can in the Isle of Youth airport men’s room because he didn’t think it was plausible as a fake. Wilson said he hitchhiked with his family to get to the airport early in the morning and waited all day to get seats on a flight.
• After paying $44 for two adult tickets and $11 for his stepson, Wilson said he went to the bathroom and put the two fake grenades down the front of his shorts. Once he boarded the plane, Wilson said he secretly assembled the grenades using a pin he had told his wife to place in her hair and metal rings. Wilson insisted that his wife—who was never charged—could see what he was doing but was not in on the hijacking.
When he reached Key West, Wilson—interviewed by Thompson and a Key West Police Department officer who spoke Spanish—‘‘never really thought he would get to the United States and actually be punished,’’ the FBI report said.
Herald staff writer Larry Lebowitz contributed to this report.
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