FALN Terrorist Trial: 1981

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FALN Terrorist Trial: 1981

Defendants: Elizam Escobar, Ricardo Jimenez, Adolfo Matos, Alfredo Mendez, Dylcia Noemi Pagan, Alicia Rodriguez, Ida Luz Rodriguez, Luis Rosa, Carlos Alberto Torres, and Carmen Valentin
Crimes Charged: Seditious conspiracy, interference with interstate commerce by threats or violence, possession of an unregistered firearm, carrying firearms during the commission of seditious conspiracy and interference with interstate commerce by violence, interstate transportation of firearms with intent to commit seditious conspiracy and interference with interstate commerce by violence, interstate transportation of stolen motor vehicles
Chief Defense Lawyers: None
Chief Prosecutor: Jeremy Margolis
Judge: Thomas R. McMillen
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Dates of Trial: February 3-18, 1981
Verdicts: Guilty
Sentences: ImprisonmentEscobar: 60 years; Jimenez: 90 years; Matos: 70 years; Mendez: 75 years; Pagan: 55 years; Alicia Rodriguez: 55 years; Ida Luz Rodriguez: 75 years; Rosa: 75 years; Torres: 70 years; Valentin: 90 years

SIGNIFICANCE: The trial of 10 FALN members in Chicago was one of the most sensational government cases against Puerto Rican nationalist groups accused of violence. The 1999 release of some of those convicted sparked a confrontation between Congress and the White House over the issue of Presidential Executive Privilege.

The 1970s were a troubled decade in the political history of Puerto Rico. Ceded by Spain in 1898 after the Spanish American War, the island became a territory and later an American commonwealth. The island's relationship to the United States has been controversial ever since, with activists advocating options ranging from formal recognition of Puerto Rico as the 51st state to complete independence, obtained by force if necessary.

In the 1970s, groups advocating violence for independence made their presence known with deadly results. Bombs exploded at military facilities and in cities across the American mainland. The worst incident occurred in January 1975, when an explosion tore through Fraunces Tavern in New York City's financial district during lunch hour, killing 4 people and injuring 53 others.

Radical groups credited with such attacks included the FALN or Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation). FALN actions were largely limited to bombings that created property damage and temporary takeovers of presidential campaign headquarters in New York and Chicago during the 1980 election primaries. Despite the group's reliance on publicity as a guerilla tactic, however, the group was also covertly linked to August 1977 bombings of the U.S. Department of Defense and Mobil Oil Corporation buildings in New York, in which one person was killed. The FBI suspected FALN involvement in over 100 other bombings nationwide, which, by the end of the decade, had killed 5 people, wounded 80 others, and caused millions of dollars in damage.

11 Arrested in Evanston

On April 4, 1980, police in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, were staking out a rental truck that had been stolen during an armed robbery earlier that day. When Luis Rosa and Alicia Rodriguez approached the truck, police arrested them. Both suspects were armed and had arrived in stolen vehicles. That afternoon Evanston police were also called to investigate a suspicious parked van. Upon arriving, officers noticed a false mustache slipping from the lip of one of the van's occupants and a pistol was discovered in the purse of another; all nine occupants were arrested. A search of the van revealed a cache of guns.

None of the suspects would give their names. Consultation with the FBI, however, revealed that the Evanston police had at once arrested a major portion of the FALN's membership. Questions about the Fraunces Tavern explosion had landed Carlos Alberto Torres on the FBI's 10-MostWanted list, while his wife, Maria Haydee Torres, was suspected in the Mobil Oil bombing. The others were identified as Elizam Esc, 9bar, Ricardo Jimenez, Adolfo Matos, Alfredo Mendez, Dylcia Noemi Pagan, Ida Luz Rodriguez, and Carmen Valentin.

Haydee Torres was immediately extradited to New York to stand trial. State weapons and conspiracy charges were filed against all the other suspects, except Rodriguez and Rosa, who were charged with armed robbery, armed violence, possession of a stolen vehicle, and conspiracy.

Because those arrested considered themselves to be prisoners of war, the political overtones were felt at the trials from the start. Rodriguez and Rosa were gagged, then removed from court for incessantly shouting pro-independence slogans. Their defiance was considered a lack of remorse by the judge who, when they were found guilty, added a total of five six-month contempt of court terms to their maximum 30-year sentences. The other FALN defendants received lesser penalties. All were sentenced to three years for conspiracy to commit armed robbery and five years for possessing a sawed-off shotgun. The eight-year sentences meant that each of the defendants would be eligible for parole in four years.

Federal Charges and Trial

Yet the defendants' legal troubles were just beginning. During their trials for breaking Illinois laws, federal charges were being prepared by U.S. government prosecutors. On December 10, 1980, the already jailed FALN members were indicted by a federal grand jury for a variety of felonies, including a rarely employed charge of seditious conspiracy. One of two named but unindicted coconspirators was Maria Haydee Torres. By the time of the indictment, Haydee Torres had already been tried for her involvement in the fatal Mobil Oil bombing and been sentenced to life imprisonment.

When the trial of the 10 FALN members began in Chicago's federal court on February 3, 1981, it was marked by the same political theater that had distinguished the trial for the Evanston incident. When the defendants were brought into court in chains, they loudly demanded independence for Puerto Rico. Carmen Valentin declared war on the United States and called Judge Thomas R. McMillen a "judicial puppet." The judge told the prisoners that they could remain in court and testify on their own behalf, as long as they were not disruptive. The defendants told McMillen that they had no interest in sitting through a proceeding they viewed as "a farce." Although they were accompanied to court by attorney Michael E. Deutsch, they rejected offers of defense counsel.

Judge McMillen entered not guilty pleas for the prisoners and had them removed to a nearby maximum security jail, where they listened to testimony through a loudspeaker. The prosecution produced mounds of confiscated guns, explosives, and ammunition, along with numerous communiqués allegedly discussing FALN bombing and kidnapping plots. The evidence was stacked on the unused defense counsel table. The only signs of the 10 defendants in court were their photographs, which the prosecution mounted and displayed to the jury. Even as the prosecution made its closing arguments, the judge received a dismissive written notice from the defendants, who saw no reason to participate in what they regarded as an illegitimate trial conducted by an occupying government.

After eight days of testimony by the prosecution, the defendants were found guilty on February 11, 1981. On February 18 they were sentenced to lengthy prison terms ranging from 55 to 90 years, to be served consecutively with state sentences stemming from the Evanston incident. Shortly after the trial, another FALN leader named Oscar Lopez-Rivera was arrested on charges similar to those leveled against the Chicago defendants. Lopez-Rivera was accused of plotting to kidnap a government official or one of President Ronald Reagan's sons to ransom for imprisoned FALN members. To the shock of his family and FALN supporters, the prosecution's star witness in Lopez-Rivera's July 1981 trial was Alfredo Mendez, who became a government witness and entered the federal witness protection program to reduce the 75-year sentence he had received for his conviction in the February trial.

Clinton Grants Clemency

Bombings, robberies, arrests, and trials associated with radical independence groups continued in the 1980s, but by the end of the decade, the crimes were becoming merely painful memories. In the mid-1990s, some of the imprisoned radicals petitioned for early release, claiming that the political motives for their crimes fell under U.S. clemency guidelines and that they had already served disproportionately long sentences. Human rights groups, church leaders, and politiciansincluding some prominent Puerto Rican politicians who opposed the independence movementalso joined the clemency groundswell and began to lobby the White House.

On September 8, 1999, 11 imprisoned Puerto Rican militants accepted a clemency offer from the Clinton administration and were freed after agreeing to renounce violence and submit to parole restrictions. Eight of the 11 were FALN members convicted in the February 1981 trial; Carlos Alberto Torres was not offered clemency and remained in prison.

Critics of President Clinton accused him of pandering to terrorists and hoping to gain support for his wife's planned campaign for the Senate among New York's Puerto Rican voters. Amid a political furor, Clinton responded that he made the clemency offers in consideration of the lengthy sentences already served by those convicted and on the advice of White House counsel, former president Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and others. The explanation did little to satisfy congressional critics, who demanded that the White House turn over records relating to the president's clemency decision, expecting to find evidence that Clinton had rejected FBI and Justice Department advice opposing clemency. When the White House declined to provide the documents on grounds of executive privilege, congressional Republicans responded with an official report critical of the clemency. Like other conflicts typifying the vituperative relations between Congress and the White House in the 1990s, the war of words over the matter was not resolved. The White House, however, agreed to a review of the presidential pardon system to allow the victims of such serious crimes to participate in the process directly.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Burton, Dan, et al. "Findings of the Committee on Government Reform." —rpt2.htm">http://www.house.gov/reform/reports/finaLfalnrpt2.htm.

"Suspect in Bombings by F.A.L.N. Is Seized." New York Times (April 5, 1980): 1.

"Ten Convicted in Chicago in F.A.L.N Trial." New York Times (February 12, 1981): 14.

"Trial without Defendants." Time (March 2, 1981): 78.