MIAMI -- Nine members of the Jamaica-based Ethiopian Zion Coptic church were convicted by a federal jury Friday of operating a massive marijuana smuggling operation under the cloak of religion.
Each defendant faces up to 25 years imprisonment and $75,000 in fines.
The Coptics, who say they smoke marijuana as a religious sacrament, stood impassively in their robes as the verdict of the jury of six men and six women was read. They said nothing and showed no emotion.
The government case was based on seizure of more than 95 tons of marijuana in three different raids.
U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler agreed to allow seven of the nine to remain free on bonds ranging from $50,000 to $350,000 while awaiting sentencing in 30 to 45 days. The other two, Jeffrey Brown and Clifton Ray Middleton, are already serving prison terms for previous drug convictions.
As the Coptics were leaving the courtroom, the 58-year-old mother of defendant Jacob Shnurman collapsed. Her son helped her to a bench, wiped her brow and held her in his arms. She had testified as an alibi witness for her son and sat in the courtroom throughout the nine-week trial.
Thomas 'Brother Louv' Reilly, a Miami Coptic leader who was among three persons named in the original indictment who had their trials severed from the others, denounced the verdict.
'It's a verdict against the entire church,' Reilly said. 'It's not just against each brother anymore, it's against the whole church.'
Others convicted along with Middleton, Brown and Shnurman were Michael Booth, Randall Collins, Irving Imoberstag, Larry Lancellotti, Robert Lawler and Bradford Rush.
Still awaiting trial along with Reilly are Coptic 'Sister' Mary Morrison and Tony Darwin, a pilot, who was the only non-Coptic among those indicted.
One defendant, Gregory Lancelotti, was acquitted by direction of Hoeveler earlier this week. The judge said the government had not presented enough evidence to convict him.
The nine were convicted of two counts of conspiracy as well as importation, possession and distribution of marijuana.
Jurors heard testimony from more than 90 witnesses and were shown more than 160 exhibits. In the conspiracy counts, the governent charged the nine used a fleet of at least 70 vessels, numerous trucks and vans, and its property at Miami Beach and Dunnellon, Fla., and Deer Isle, Maine, in its marijuana smuggling.