California man charged in terrorrism case freed after 14 years in prison

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A 36-year-old Lodi, Calif. man is now free after spending 14 years in prison on terrorist-related charges -- a crime he still insists he did not commit coupled with a federal judge ruling his defense was hampered by an inexperienced lawyer. 

"I'm at a loss for words," Hamid Hayat said Sunday through tears at the Jackson Sports Academy in McClellan Park to celebrate Eid al-Adha, the Islamic "Festival of Sacrifice" that marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and commemorates personal sacrifice. "I'm still in shock. I can't believe this day came. I still think this is a dream. I wake up, and I still think I'll be in prison."

Hayat traveled the nearly 40 miles from his home in the Central Valley to Sacramento for the emotional and public event. 

Hayat's lead attorney, Dennis Rioridan described to the Sacramento Bee what happened: In 2003, Hayat had traveled to Pakistan to seek medical treatment for his mother and to find a wife. While he was in Pakistan, he received calls from someone who, Riordan said, was a U.S. government informant, urging Hayat to get terrorism training.

Hayat refused, the informant threatened him, and Hayat cut communications with the caller. 

When Hayat returned to California in 2006, federal prosecutors accused him of participating in a terrorist camp in Pakistan and taking part in an al-Qaida "sleeper cell" in Lodi. Hayat, who was 22 years old, and represented by a young and inexperienced attorney at the time, was sentenced to 24 years in prison, for which he served 14 years until his release.

While in prison, Riordan took on Hayat's case. Riordan said that a Pakistani journalist and a Pakistani lawyer helped travel around Pakistan to find witnesses who could provide evidence that Hayat never went to a terrorist camp. The witnesses would teleconference into late night court hearings to testify, the Bee reported.

In 2018, federal magistrate judge Deborah Barnes issued a 116-page recommendation to the federal judge overseeing Hayat's case, arguing that Hayat's conviction should be vacated because Hayat did not have effective representation that could prove his innocence when he was first convicted.

In July, U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. found the new testimony from Pakistani witnesses was credible and vacated Hayat's conviction. 

"If this experience proved anything to the world," Riordan told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Hamid Hayat is a man of peace." 

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.