A federal appeals court Friday affirmed the conviction of Miami sect leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh and six disciples, depicting their religion as a volatile brew of brotherly love and racism in which blind faith led to conspiracy and murder.
Rejecting every defense argument as "meritless, " the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled prosecutors were right to use the federal racketeering statutes to pursue a religious group that committed "ruthless crimes."
"Our review of the record convinces us that the evidence presented at trial was more than sufficient to support Yahweh's conviction, " the three-judge panel declared. "While he did not commit the acts personally, he ordered his followers to commit numerous acts of murder, secure in the knowledge that his orders would be carried out."
In a 24-page opinion, the court said "substantial legal precedent" permitted the federal government to try the Yahwehs under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, originally enacted to wipe out the mob.
Noting that a group of criminals -- not a religion -- was on trial, the court made it plain that the First Amendment allows no organization, be it a motorcycle club or a nonprofit charity, to use religion as a shield.
"Yahweh used the religion as a means of exhorting followers to commit the racketeering acts, " the court said. "The evidence regarding the religion was relevant because religious teachings were used to justify, rationalize and promote crime."
The appeals court also dismissed defense claims that prosecutors illegally injected racism and testimony about the "Terrible Black God Yahweh, " leading black people from years of oppression to the promised land of Israel.
In strong language, the court traced the rise of Yahweh, born Hulon Mitchell Jr., from a man preaching "brotherly love" to an all-powerful "Son of God" demanding total loyalty. He regulated what his disciples ate, how they dressed and with whom they had sex.
Yahweh's Circle of 10 protected him and stood guard with six-foot wooden staffs at the entrance of the Temple of Love in Liberty City.
As his religion spread to 40 cities, Yahweh Ben Yahweh's power and influence grew, as did his finances. He amassed a multimillion-dollar real estate empire, and with "violently racist" prophesies, he dispatched "death angels" to kill his enemies.
In 1986, Yahweh sent a band to firebomb a Delray Beach neighborhood. "Yahweh ordered the arsonists to stand in front of the residences and use their swords and machetes to murder anyone who tried to exit the burning houses, " the court said. "The residents were too terrified to come out and face Yahweh's death angels."
And "he sent his death angels into the Miami community on multiple occasions to kill white people randomly and to commit acts of retribution against blacks who interfered with the Yahwehs' sales of products and collection of donations."
Despite the allegations of terrorism, Miami's politicians and civic leaders praised Yahweh Ben Yahweh as a ghetto savior, rallying around him. Just a month before his indictment in 1990, then-Mayor Xavier Suarez declared a Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day.
After a five-month trial in 1992, the jury found seven defendants guilty of racketeering conspiracy: Yahweh, his companion, Linda Gaines, and Temple strongmen Robert Beasley Jr., Rufus Pace Sr., Ernest Lee James, Richard Ingraham, and Walter Lightburn.
The jury hung on a second charge linking them to specific homicides. It acquitted seven other defendants and deadlocked on two.
Judge Norman C. Roettger sentenced Yahweh to 18 years. His followers got 15 to 16 1/2 years.
Albert Levin, an attorney representing the Yahwehs, said they will appeal to the Supreme Court. "It was an in-your-face opinion, somewhat, " he said.