Cuba hijacker makes 1st US court appearance


MIAMI (AP) — After raising a shackled right hand and swearing to tell the truth, U.S.-to-Cuba airline hijacker William Potts told a judge Thursday he had an objection at his first federal court appearance to face decades-old air piracy charges.

“I would like to — I’m new at this stuff,” Potts told U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Otazo-Reyes. “With total respect — I have to protest these proceedings.” But Otazo-Reyes cut Potts off before he could explain, saying all she wanted to know was whether he could afford a lawyer. Potts said he had earned about 200 Cuban pesos a month as a farmer outside Havana and had no other appreciable assets or income.  

The judge appointed a federal public defender to represent him and Potts did not speak again about his objection. Potts, 56, was arrested Wednesday after flying to Miami from Cuba to answer for his 1984 hijacking of a Piedmont Airlines jet originally bound from New York to Miami. The FBI says Potts, then a self-described “black liberation” militant, handed a flight attendant a note claiming he had explosives on board and demanding the plane be diverted to Havana.

In the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of American aircraft were hijacked to communist Cuba at the height of the Cold War. But by the time Potts commandeered his plane, they had become less frequent and Cuba had begun prosecuting the hijackers.

Once there, Potts was arrested by Cuban authorities and convicted of air piracy, serving more than 13 years in prison. Potts has said he hopes U.S. authorities will give him credit for that time served, but legal experts say there’s no requirement that they do so.

“Hijacking an aircraft in the United States and taking it to Cuba violates the laws of both sovereigns and a prosecution by Cuba does not bar a subsequent prosecution by the United States,” said David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who is now in private practice.

The U.S. air piracy charge carries sentence of between 20 years and life behind bars. Potts did not enter a plea at Thursday’s brief hearing. An arraignment was set for next Wednesday as well as a hearing on whether Potts should be released on bail.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Medetis said she will oppose bail, contending that Potts is a risk of fleeing prosecution and a danger to the community if released. After these preliminary matters, the case will be handled by U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum in Fort Lauderdale, herself a former federal prosecutor.

Potts, who is originally from New Jersey, described himself in interviews as the “homesick hijacker” and said he decided to return to face the charges to bring closure to the case. “I’m not the same person I was,” Potts said in an October interview with The Associated Press in Cuba. “The time has come to bring this thing to an end. I know it’s a risk, but it’s a necessary risk. I’m hoping that something good can come out of this.”

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