MIAMI -- A federal appeals court threw out the convictions and life sentences of five accused Cuban spies Tuesday, ruling that they did not receive a fair trial because of community prejudice and extensive publicity.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ordered a new trial after agreeing with the arguments of defense attorneys about the 2001 convictions. None of the jurors was Cuban, but the defense argued that prejudice against Fidel Castro and his communist government runs high in Miami.
Federal prosecutors had no immediate comment on the court's decision.
Also overturned was the murder conspiracy conviction of ringleader Gerardo Hernandez. He was also convicted for his role in the deaths of four Cuban exiles shot down by Cuban MiGs in international airspace in 1996, an event that sparked widespread condemnation.
All five Cubans were convicted in June 2001 of serving as unregistered agents of a foreign government. Evidence showed that two of them targeted U.S. military installations from Key West to Tampa and the ring spied on Cuban exiles.
The five admit being Cuban agents, but said they were spying on "terrorist" exile groups opposed to Castro, not the U.S. government. The defense said the agents' primary mission was to thwart extremist exiles who supported terrorism in Cuba, including a string of Havana bombings that killed one tourist and injured 12 others in 1997.
The five were the only ones who went to trial after they were indicted in 1998 as part of the 14-member Wasp Network.
Cuba has made the five a cause celebre, featuring them on a Web site and issuing a CD of one spy's jailhouse poetry set to music. Free the Five committees were set up in several countries.