EL PASO, Texas — During an 11-week trial that featured a seemingly endless parade of 24 witnesses, federal prosecutors meticulously presented the U.S. government's case against an elderly ex-CIA agent from Cuba accused of lying during immigration hearings.
Yet it took a Texas jury barely three hours Friday to shrug all that off and exonerate 83-year-old Luis Posada Carriles of all 11 counts.
Posada spent much of his life working to destabilize communist governments throughout Latin America and was often supported by Washington. He is Public Enemy No. 1 in his homeland, and even considered ex-President Fidel Castro's personal nemesis.
But shortly after leaving the courthouse, Posada told reporters that his days of promoting regime-change in Cuba are behind him.
"I see liberty at the end of my life. I have no aspirations in Cuba, expect maybe to see the beaches," he said. "I hope the Lord gives me a few more years so I can see them again."
"This trial was not a vindication of any kind of violence toward Cuba," added his lead attorney, Miami-based Arturo Hernandez. "This trial was a statement of whether or not the government had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Posada Carriles had lied."
After their verdict, jurors were escorted out a backdoor and whisked away in a court van. What moved them to acquit so quickly was not clear.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Reardon said only that "we respect the jury's decision."
Faced with international pressure and its own stated hardline stance against terrorism, the U.S. government has been seeking to convict Posada for years. But its cases against him have always relied — rather ironically — on charging a former spy with lying.
Posada participated indirectly in the Bay of Pigs invasion and was a CIA operative until 1976. That same year, he moved to Venezuela and was arrested for planning the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. But he was acquitted by a military tribunal, then escaped from prison while still facing a civilian trial.
In the 1980s, Posada helped the U.S. funnel support to Nicaraguan Contra rebels, and in 2000, was arrested in Panama amid a plot to kill Castro during a summit there. He was pardoned in 2004.
Posada sneaked into the U.S. the following March and underwent naturalization hearings in El Paso. He was placed in immigration detention and accused of lying while under oath during those proceedings about how he reached U.S. soil, facing immigration fraud and perjury charges when his first trial opened in El Paso in 2007.
But U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone freed Posada and threw that case out, chastising the government for using Posada's hearing as a pretext to build a criminal case against him.
Her decision was overturned on appeal, however, and the case returned to Cardone's court.
Prosecutors added four additional charges, three of them obstruction, alleging that Posada further lied during the immigration hearings about masterminding of a wave of 1997 bombings at Cuban tourist sites that killed an Italian tourist and wounded about a dozen other people.
During a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Posada was quoted as saying he planned the bombings and clarified that they were meant to hurt tourism in Cuba, but not kill anyone.
His new trial opened before Cardone on Jan. 10 and saw prosecutors call a long line of witnesses, including Ann Louise Bardach, who interviewed Posada for the Times. Compelled to testify by subpoena, she said Posada granted the interview because he was angry that the bombings hadn't garnered much attention from the U.S. press.
Bardach said the jury heard only about two of her six hours of taped interviews with Posada — and even those were heavily edited by court officials.
"It doesn't seem quite right to link our tapes to the verdict," she said.
Cuba and Venezuela would like to try Posada for the 1997 hotel bombings or the downing of the 1976 airliner, but a U.S. immigration judge has previously ruled that he can't be sent to either country, for fear he could be tortured. He has escaped deportation elsewhere since no other nation is willing to take him.
Jose Pertierra, the Washington-based lawyer representing Venezuela in its case against Posada, sat through every day of his trial. He said he hopes the U.S. now heeds Venezuela's call to send Posada to that country to face 76 counts of murder.
"The theater was worth more than the evidence in this case," Pertierra said.