Miami religious leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh, convicted nine years ago of conspiring to build his organization on a foundation of murder, is set to go free next month. But there's one hitch to his Aug. 17 parole: The government doesn't want him to associate with his Nation of Yahweh followers again.
Yahweh, 65, says that condition violates his First Amendment rights, so he is suing the U.S. Parole Commission. "I've never heard of anything like it before," said Yahweh's Fort Lauderdale attorney, Jon May. "These are extraordinary types of restrictions and patently unconstitutional."
The federal prosecutor in the case, Ed Nucci, wasn't available to comment, but Assistant State Attorney Trudy Novicki, who helped federal prosecutors in the criminal case, said there's a good reason for this type of restriction. "There was an undercurrent of violence [in this sect]," she said. "I don't think it was anything but a cult, and we need to protect the community from it."
Yahweh's criminal case was one of the most notorious in South Florida's history. Federal prosecutors accused Yahweh of plotting 14 Miami-Dade murders and two attempted murders and of ordering the firebombing of a Delray Beach neighborhood in 1986 to further his religious empire. Yahweh and six followers were convicted of a conspiracy but not murder.
Because Yahweh's organization was considered a criminal enterprise when he was convicted in 1992, he could now violate his parole and possibly face imprisonment again if he associates with the group members. "You shall not associate or have any contact with members of the Black Hebrew group," the Parole Commission wrote on May 31 to Yahweh, who is imprisoned in Ray Brook, N.Y., and wants to return to Miami.
"This includes direct or indirect contact through any means, to include Internet, television, radio, phone, written form or in person," the commission ordered. "This includes residence, employment, social or other activities, without the prior written approval of your U.S. probation officer." In Yahweh's lawsuit filed late last month, May said the Parole Commission's conditions not only violate Yahweh's First Amendment rights but also fail to serve any legitimate government interest.
The suit asks U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore to order the Parole Commission to lift those conditions and to stop the commission from revoking his parole if he exercises his constitutional "right to freedom of religion and association." "We want the restrictions struck down as unconstitutional," May said. No hearing date has been set. In the suit, he said the Parole Commission did not impose such conditions on television evangelist Jim Bakker after he was released from prison following his conviction for embezzling from his ministry.
"Indeed, he is back in the business of creating a new ministry, a new Christian ministry," the suit said. "Protecting the free exercise rights of Black Muslims, African American Jehovah's Witnesses, Sikhs, Rastafarians, Santerias and even the Nation of Yahweh is manifestly in the interest of the public because only through guaranteeing their rights will the rights of all Americans be guaranteed." Novicki, the state prosecutor, said the analogy to Bakker is "laughable." "I see a real serious difference in the compelling state interest between theft and homicide," Novicki said.
In May 1992, Yahweh was found guilty of conspiring to build a religious empire built on murder. The jury convicted Yahweh and six followers of the criminal enterprise, but acquitted seven others of the same charge. It deadlocked on the fates of two others. The star witness in the case was Robert Rozier, who had been convicted of committing four murders under the orders of the cult's leaders. He later admitted killing seven people.
Yahweh was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but he was able to get gain time for his earlier parole release because of more liberal federal laws in effect when he was convicted. In December 1992, Miami-Dade prosecutors dropped their efforts to press murder charges against Yahweh, after he had been acquitted by a state court jury in one homicide case.
Yahweh, whose birth name is Hulon Mitchell Jr., asked the Parole Commission to relocate to Enid, Okla., near his birthplace. But a U.S. probation officer told the warden at the Ray Brook prison that was a bad idea.
Two senior detectives in the Enid Police Department and two FBI agents said both law enforcement agents "vehemently oppose" Yahweh living in the community, U.S. Probation Officer Scott Schakett wrote in a Feb. 12 letter. "[H]is notoriety and beliefs would cause considerable discord among the local population," Schakett said.
"Enid is a small rural community comprised primarily of Caucasian, traditional Christian individuals who would not subscribe to Mr. Yahweh's highly publicized religious and social beliefs. "Furthermore, Oklahomans in general are highly sensitive to and offended by individuals who may be perceived as being anti-government in the wake of the April 1995 Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City, which claimed 168 lives," he added.
"Both Mr. Yahweh's cable television program and website describe their organization as being at war with the United States." Yahweh's attorney, May, predicted that the probation officer's reference to Enid's "traditional Christian individuals" would come back to haunt the Parole Commission. "They will have to eat those statements," May said.