The Look of a Warrior

Tony Bryant is a black militant, a hijacker, a survivor of Cuban prisons, and a Castro-hating commando. And don't you forget it.

Bryant's trial began, six months to the day after his voyage into Cuban waters, with typical Ellis Rubin flourish. "May it please the court," the lawyer commenced. "Ladies and gentlemen, this case started 34 years ago this week, when a man calling himself Robin Hood came down from the mountains in Cuba and declared himself the new leader of their society."

Federal prosecutors Julia Paylor and Andrew Oosterbaan, who had filed a pretrial motion to curb such rhetoric, quickly objected and Rubin acceded. But the defense lawyer continued to hammer at the case's supposed broader motives, at one point blithely asserting that the indictment A which was in fact sought by a Republican administration A had to be political, because it was unsealed the day after the presidential election.

The tack was hardly unprecedented. A staunch foe of communism, Rubin served during the Fifties as assistant attorney general of Florida in charge of anti-subversive activities. Not only is he Comandos L's general counsel, but for years he has represented members of Miami's anti-Castro fringe, becoming the lawyer of first resort for many embattled exiles.

This popularity, in fact, nearly got Rubin disqualified as Bryant's counsel. Back in early November, prosecutors issued a grand jury subpoena for Alejandro Perez, one of Bryant's shipmates. When they learned Perez subsequently had called Rubin for legal advice, prosecutors insisted a conflict-of-interest hearing be held, since both Bryant and Perez A a potential witness at Bryant's trial A identified Rubin as their attorney. Four days after the November 12 hearing, U.S. Magistrate Ann Vitunac issued a scathing Order to Disqualify, in which she suggested that Rubin had violated the Florida Bar's Rules of Professional Conduct.

Federal Judge James Lawrence King later allowed Rubin to re-enter the case, after Rubin filed a lengthy brief emphasizing Bryant's constitutional right to choose his own counsel. (Perez invoked the Fifth Amendment and was never called as a witness.)

King's ruling was one of several that pleased the defense. Earlier the judge had freed Bryant from jail for an afternoon so the defendant could pay a well-publicized deathbed visit to his ailing mentor, Tony Cuesta. Cuesta died two days later. In early December, King released Bryant altogether, voiding a $15,000 bond. Then he granted a defense motion to move the trial from Key West to Miami, Bryant's home base. (King argued that wintertime hotel rooms for the jurors, witnesses, and officers of the court would be just too expensive on the chic island.)

Still, prosecutors were confident as the trial opened on January 4. Their key witness was U.S. Customs agent Leo Sandoval, who had interviewed Bryant two weeks after the mission. According to Sandoval's handwritten notes, "Bryant said that the weapons did not belong to him, however, they were given to him for use on this trip. He was told that they were legal and took them in the event he would have to defend himself." The prosecution also showed the jury a videotape, taken by one of Bryant's crew members at the outset of the journey, that showed Bryant holding a shotgun and staring regally into the horizon.

In his opening statement, Rubin claimed that Eugenio Llamera, another commando, placed the weapons onboard without telling Bryant. He assured jurors that his defendant only learned of the guns on the high seas, outside the twelve-mile limit that marks United States territory. Bryant's supposed "confession" to Sandoval, Rubin explained, was nothing more than a noble attempt to protect his friend Llamera.

On the second day the prosecution rested, and Rubin entered a motion requesting the judge issue an acquittal, rather than sending the case to the jury. King allowed the case to go forward, promising to rule on Rubin's motion after hearing the defense. But he also said he remained unconvinced that Bryant had "knowingly possessed" guns in U.S. waters.

The sole defense witness then entered the courtroom. A compact man, outfitted in a brown suit and brown suede shoes, Tony Bryant spoke so faintly that Rubin had to prod him to speak up. Asked about his various Comandos L activities, Bryant told jurors he hoped "to send a message of hope to the Cuban people, asking them to remember they are not forgotten." Shoulders hunched in a posture of humility, he recalled how he and his departed friend Tony Cuesta had lectured all around the nation "on the necessity of blacks and whites to work together." In sum, Bryant came off about as menacing as Mary Poppins.

During cross-examination the next day, the defendant insisted that Cuesta A not Llamera A had supplied the guns and informed him by radio that the weapons were onboard. Bryant said he had no idea he was committing a crime. "If I had," he reasoned, "I would have thrown the guns overboard" before the Coast Guard arrived.

The judge concurred. As the defense rested, King stunned courtroom observers by granting Rubin's motion for an acquittal. In a long, rambling explanation King emphasized that Bryant had not behaved like a criminal. "The legal issue," he concluded, "is whether or not there has been any proof of knowing possession. I find that there is none."

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