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Cubans Charged With Inciting Prison Riot Found Innocent

January 16, 1986

ATLANTA (AP) _ Two Cubans were acquitted Thursday of charges that they led a 1984 riot among hundreds of Cuban inmates awaiting possible deportation at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

A federal court jury returned innocent verdicts for Jose Hernandez Mesa, 34, and his former brother-in-law, Leonel Hidalgo Diaz, 23.

Defense attorney Paul Kish, who represented Hernandez, told the jurors his client wanted him to tell them, ″There’s justice in this country and I love this country.″

About 500 shouting, debris-throwing Cuban inmates chased guards out of the cellblock on the night of Nov. 1, 1984. They burned mattresses, tore apart scaffolding, threw objects and threatened to kill guards, according to witnesses at the trial, which lasted almost two weeks.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that the riot started after officers told Hernandez he would be moved out of the cellblock into segregation. But they differed on what caused the incident.

Kish, holding up a kitchen match before the jury during his closing argument Wednesday, asked: ″If I strike this ... and drop it in a can of gasoline and it explodes, who do you blame, the match or the person who struck it?″

He argued that the decision to move Hernandez to segregation set off the riot, not Hernandez himself.

″The place was a seething cauldron ... a gasoline can,″ Kish said.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney William McKinnon argued that, while the conditions at the prison ″may explain why 500 people followed them (the defendants),″ those conditions did not excuse Hernandez and Hidalgo.

Earlier this week, both defendants took the stand to deny the charges. Other Cubans also testified there was no leader in the riot.

The Atlanta penitentiary, which houses about 1,800 Cuban inmates, is the chief holding place for Cubans the government wants to deport. They came to this country on the 1980 ″Freedom Flotilla″ boatlift and were detained because of crimes, mental problems or other factors.

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