Nearly 14 years after Hamid Hayat was convicted in a sensational terrorism trial in Sacramento and packed off to federal prison, a judge on Friday recommended that his conviction be vacated because of ineffective representation by his defense lawyer.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes issued a 116-page recommendation in Sacramento federal court saying that
Hayat’s Sixth Amendment rights were violated by the defense put on by an inexperienced lawyer who had never before selected a jury or tried a criminal case in federal court.
Barnes’ recommendation does not mean that Hayat, a former Lodi cherry picker who was arrested on terrorism-related charges along with his father in 2005, will necessarily go free.
Instead, her recommendation must now go before the trial judge who heard the case, U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr., for review.
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Barnes’ recommendation follows a lengthy trail of appeals and stems from weeks of testimony last year during an evidentiary hearing in which his lawyers argued that Hayat was railroaded by federal prosecutors who withheld evidence and by FBI agents who coerced him into making false confessions.
Hayat’s Sacramento trial attorney, Wazhma Mojaddidi, said she hoped the end result would be freedom for her former client.
“I passionately represented Hamid Hayat as a young attorney and worked with a great team of lawyers and investigators in his defense,” she wrote in an email to The Sacramento Bee. “I have always believed that he is an innocent man who was wrongly convicted.
“I am elated to hear that he could be freed soon after unjustly spending so many years in prison. It is a good day indeed.”
Hayat’s appellate lawyers also praised the decision.
“The ruling not only affirms Hayat’s decade-long arguments that he did not have a proper defense, but also bolsters what Hayat and his defense team have long maintained: Hamid Hayat is innocent,” San Francisco defense attorney Dennis Riordan said in a statement.
Federal prosecutors have long denounced such claims, noting that Hayat confessed to traveling overseas to train in terror camps and that a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his conviction in 2013.
McGregor Scott, the current U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, who oversaw the original prosecution, said Friday that his office is reviewing Barnes’ ruling.
“It has consistently been our position that Mr. Hayat received effective representation at trial and that his conviction by a jury, subsequently affirmed by the 9th Circuit, is completely valid,” Scott said. “We are presently considering all our options to include asking for further review by the district court judge.”
Hayat and his father Umer, an ice cream peddler, were arrested in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in what became the first major terror prosecution following the hijackings.
Umer Hayat was accused of lying to the FBI about whether his son had trained in a Pakistani terror camp, and later went free after pleading guilty to a lesser charge.
But Hamid Hayat was convicted in 2005 of lying to the FBI and providing support to terrorists and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Now 36, Hayat is serving his time at a federal lockup near Phoenix and has a projected release date of May 2026.
During last year’s hearings, Barnes heard testimony from nationally respected legal scholars and alibi witnesses in Pakistan who testified that while he was visiting Pakistan he was never out of their sight long enough to visit any training camps.
His lawyers also argued that the government had withheld evidence that the camp Hayat supposedly visited was not in operation while he was in Pakistan.
Barnes rejected those arguments, saying they were based “purely on speculation.”