SACRAMENTO -- While a judge refused Monday to decide defense claims of government misconduct, an estimated 8,000 Hmong outside Sacramento's federal courthouse left no doubt where they stand: They want an end to the prosecution of 11 men charged with plotting the violent overthrow of communist Laos.
After a 90-minute hearing, U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. declined to rule on a defense motion to dismiss the case. He set an Oct. 5 status conference.
The arguments by lead defense attorney John Keker and U.S. Attorney S. Robert Tice-Raskin betrayed profound differences in the interpretation of the evidence thus far disclosed to the defense.
Keker and his colleagues feel strongly that an undercover agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives posing as a weapons dealer "made up" the conspiracy that 10 Hmong, half from the Fresno area, and a former Army lieutenant colonel are now charged with, and the agent's sins were compounded by prosecutors twisting the truth.
Tice-Raskin argued that nobody in the government is guilty of misconduct and any mistakes that may have been made are not material to the charges.
Among the posters waved outside during a four-hour rally that started at the Capitol was one that read "No Criminal Enterprise Before The Government's Involvement."
Busloads of supporters came from Fresno and Merced.
The throng unleashed the loudest chant of the morning -- "Free Vang Pao!" -- as the general made his way into the courthouse surrounded by security guards in yellow T-shirts.
Vang Pao is the Hmong general who, under CIA direction, led a guerrilla army against Lao and Vietnamese communists from 1961 to 1975. At 79, he is a revered leader of Hmong expatriates in the United States.
It was the emotional climax of a protest that began at 7 a.m. at the state Capitol and wound its way to the federal building, where the intersection of Fifth and I streets was jammed with protesters.
Sacramento police Lt. Mike Bray estimated the crowd at the federal building swelled to 8,000 people, the largest he has seen in 20 years on the job.
"They chartered 59 buses from the Central Valley alone, and others came in by train and light rail," Bray said. "Fortunately, they are very orderly and very respectful."
Organizers called the rally -- which included Hmong from California, Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Australia and France -- a defining moment, comparable to marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.
The event united Hmong across generations. Sacramento shaman Wang Her Vang burned symbolic paper money as a sacrifice to the ancestral spirits, asking them to release the case. And Rio Linda High School student Dang Neng Thao led the National Anthem.
In a dramatic moment outside, Bill Lair, a former CIA officer who recruited Vang Pao and his army of 30,000 indigenous tribal people, told the crowd, "I don't believe this was a serious plot, and I don't believe the U.S. thought so. It's a travesty of justice."
Inside, attorney James Brosnahan, who represents 72-year-old Youa True Vang of Fresno, said to Damrell: "My client fought with U.S. forces for 15 years. He took direction from CIA and other intelligence officers. Is it outrageous then that it was suggested to him and these other men that the United States government was behind them? You bet it is. That's a stain on this case that will never go away."
But Tice-Raskin insisted, "CIA support is a lie started by Lo Cha Thao," a defendant from Clovis, and with Harrison Jack, the former Army lieutenant colonel who was a target of court-authorized wiretaps.
Attorney William Portanova, a former federal and state prosecutor who represents Lo Thao, told the judge, "This case has felt wrong to me from the beginning, and now I think I know why."
He noted Tice-Raskin's statement that all wiretapped conversations in the Hmong language had not been transcribed when the indictment was returned nearly two years ago. "How did they know to indict if they didn't know what was on their own wiretaps?" Portanova asked.
Tice-Raskin countered, "We had a readily provable case at the time of the indictment." Tice-Raskin said the defendants "were the first to put the idea of a coup into play, and were actively working to gather funds and ultimately led the undercover agent to believe they had enough money to acquire the first shipment of arms."
The defense charges a series of meetings involving the defendants and the undercover agent were surreptitiously recorded and, in some instances, the agent later lied in court affidavits about the nature of those conversations.
Keker argued the agent "completely fabricated what happened" at the only meeting attended by Vang Pao.
Keker cited transcripts from the first meeting -- on Jan. 25, 2007 -- of the agent and Jack:
"I'm willing to bet, Harrison, that the CIA is aware of what's going on there," the agent said. "They don't want to get in another Vietnam, but if Vang Pao goes in there and takes over the freaking country and then ... wants to have democratic elections, that's gonna be like that, I have no doubt in my mind.
"I think [the CIA will] step in there and go, 'Hey, you know, this is what we can do, and this is why we can do it, because we have the backing of our government and not just our agency, and we want to back your political endeavor of democracy."