The family of Lodi terror suspect 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.
Burrell, the original trial judge, agreed with the January findings of a federal magistrate judge that Hayat’s original lawyer had not provided an effective defense, a move that Hayat’s legal team says should result in his immediate release from prison.
Hayat attorney Layli Shirani said the team would file a motion in federal court Wednesday 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.
Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he hoped the government would allow Hayat’s immediate release.
“This case affected the Hayat family, the Lodi community, the Stockton community and the young generation of Muslim Americans who saw one of their own convicted in a post-9/11 world while completely innocent…,” Elkarra said. “We ask U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott and the Department of Justice to show mercy and allow this young man to be released.”
Scott’s office has not revealed whether it will oppose Hayat’s release, but issued a statement Wednesday afternoon noting that the judge’s order did not criticize the prosecution of the case.
“We respect the decision of the court in this case,” Scott’s statement said. “That decision related only to the effectiveness of defendant’s counsel – a privately retained lawyer of Hayat’s own choosing who was found by CAIR for him – and it did not determine the question of the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
“Further, nothing in the decision calls into question the government’s conduct in prosecuting the defendant, and we stand by that prosecution in all respects. We are in the process of reviewing our options in accordance with DOJ policies and procedures. In the meantime, Hayat’s continued detention is a determination to be made by the court.”
Scott oversaw the original prosecution of Hayat, now 36, and fought back a series of appeals over the years aimed at showing Hayat had been railroaded into making a false confession to FBI agents.
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.
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 last year 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.
Raheela Hayat recounted that when FBI agents raided their Lodi home she was 10 and they pointed guns at her head.
She also said her parents have been devastated by the events of the last 14 years, with both taking anti-depressants, and that the possibility of her brother’s release left her overjoyed.
“We couldn’t believe that Allah showed us mercy after 14 years, that he’ll be home with us 14 years later and we’ll be celebrating as a family. ...” she said. “We’re really thankful for Judge Burrell making this decision.”
Raheela Hayat said she last saw her brother, the oldest of four siblings, in prison in 2014, and that he called the family home from prison Tuesday night.
“He said his counselor said, ‘Start packing your stuff, you’re ready to go home Thursday,’ ” she said.