MIAMI (Reuters) - A judge declared a mistrial on Thursday for six men accused of plotting to blow up America's tallest skyscraper, Chicago's Sears Tower, after a jury failed to reach verdicts on them but acquitted one other man.
The decision was a setback for the U.S. government, which had touted the arrests as an important victory in its war on terrorism. U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard scheduled a new trial for January 7 for the six.
The verdict came after the 12-member Miami jury deliberated over nine days and twice told the judge they could not agree on any of the four charges against the men, known as the Liberty City Seven after the poor Miami neighborhood where they met.
Lyglenson Lemorin, 32, described as a soldier in the plot, was cleared on four terrorism conspiracy charges including the charge of plotting to wage war on the United States.
"The jury cannot reach a verdict regarding the remaining defendants," Lenard said.
The men had faced up to 70 years in prison if convicted on all four counts, which included allegations they took an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden's Islamic militant group and plotted to blow up FBI offices and the 110-story Sears Tower.
At the time of the arrests in June 2006, federal agents said the group's plans were "aspirational rather than operational," and posed no real threat because they had neither al Qaeda contacts nor the means of carrying out attacks.
Defense lawyers dismissed the charges as "nonsense" and said the entire plot was orchestrated by paid FBI informants.
Narseal Batiste, who prosecutors said was the group's ringleader, testified that he went along with the informants, who posed as Middle Eastern contacts, in a bid to con them out of $50,000 to support an inner-city religious group.
Jury foreman Jeff Agron called it a difficult case and said the jury was widely split on some counts.
"My personal belief is that there may have been sufficient evidence (for conviction) ... on some of them as to some of the counts," he told reporters outside Miami's federal courthouse, one of the buildings allegedly targeted by the group.
He said he was among those who believed that a conspiracy to help al Qaeda existed.
Government prosecutors built their case on audio and video recordings made by the informants, including one that showed the men taking an oath to support al Qaeda, the group blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
The twin towers of New York's World Trade Center destroyed in 2001 were the second and third tallest U.S. skyscrapers.
Prosecutors said Batiste plotted with the informants to obtain machineguns, a rocket launcher, military uniforms, bullet-proof vests and other gear to build an army.
They said the men wanted to spread chaos by poisoning salt-shakers in restaurants and blowing up buildings.
The seven wanted to join al Qaeda on "a mission that would be as good or greater than 9/11," prosecutor Jacqueline Arango said in her final statement to the jury.
Agron, the jury foreman, called the prosecutors' claim that the men plotted to overthrow the government one of the weakest parts of their case and said the jury had a struggle with Batiste's defense that he was trying to con the informants.
"Some of the jurors believed that defense and others didn't," said Agron, an educator who used to practice law.
Batiste's attorney portrayed him as a would-be religious leader who lacked intellect and money. She referred to the two FBI informants as "Conman Number One" and "Conman Number Two."
Batiste, she said, was simply trying to obtain funds to turn the decrepit Liberty City warehouse where the men met into a community gathering place.
In addition to Batiste and Lemorin, the group included defendants Patrick Abraham, Stanley Grant Phanor, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin and Rotschild Augustine.
Reporting by Jim Loney, edited by Jane Sutton and Richard Meares