In a stunning move, the federal judge in Sacramento who oversaw the trial and conviction of accused Lodi terror suspect Hamid Hayat 13 years ago has ordered the conviction and sentence vacated.
The order issued Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. essentially means Hayat’s appellate attorneys can seek his immediate release from a federal prison in Phoenix, where he had been serving his 24-year sentence.
“I don’t know whether the government will choose to appeal this order,” Hayat lead defense counsel Dennis Riordan said. “They have a right to do so.
“But as someone who has practiced appellate law for 40 years, there is no possibility of overturning a district court order that is wholly based on issues of credibility.”
Riordan, a nationally known San Francisco lawyer who spent 14 years working to free Hayat, said the decision was “as significant as any that I’ve had in my career.”
He said he was able to reach Hayat in prison by phone and delivered a message years in the making.
“I said, ‘The day has arrived, we won,’ ” Riordan said. “And he said, ‘You’re joking with me.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not. The decision came down today.’”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, whose office prosecuted Hayat in 2006 and has maintained that the former Lodi cherry picker had trained in an overseas terror camp, issued a statement late Monday saying no decision had been made on how to respond to the judge’s order.
“We are in the process of reviewing the district court decision and assessing what steps, if any, should be taken and considering all our options,” the statement read.
Hayat’s family in Lodi issued a statement Tuesday rejoicing at the judge’s decision.
“We have been waiting 14 long years for Hamid to be freed,” the statement read. “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.”
Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, also applauded the decision.
“After all these years, we never lost hope that Hamid’s wrongful conviction would be overturned,” Elkarra said. “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.”
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 Riordan 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.
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 time served.
But Hamid Hayat, who was born in San Joaquin County in 1982, was found guilty in 2006 of terror-related charges and packed off to prison.
That began years of appeals efforts on his behalf, and Riordan eventually won the right to hold an evidentiary hearing in which he sought to prove that Hayat’s lawyer, Wazhma Mojaddidi of Sacramento, was so inexperienced that he could not have received a fair trial.
Evidence presented in the hearing included the fact that Mojaddidi did not present evidence from witnesses in Pakistan who could have cleared Hayat.
Some of those witnesses subsequently were called by Riordan in late-night video sessions from Pakistan during last year’s hearing and Burrell, in a 36-page decision, adopted the magistrate judge’s finding that the alibi witnesses could provide crucial testimony.
Mojaddidi, who has contended her client was innocent, issued a statement late Monday praising the decision to vacate his conviction.
“I am extremely happy to hear that Hamid will be freed and reunited with his family,” she said. “As a young attorney, I worked very hard with the legal team to prove his innocence and never gave up believing in him.
“Justice has finally been served.”