U.S. judge delays New Mexico compound hearings to let defense prepare

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[September 06, 2018]  By Andrew Hay

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Wednesday postponed hearings for five suspects from a ramshackle New Mexico compound where a toddler's body was found in order to give federal attorneys more time to prepare their defense in the racially-charged case.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kirtan Khalsa in Albuquerque, New Mexico delayed the detention and preliminary hearings until Sept. 12. The defendants will remain in custody until then.

The five defendants were appointed federal lawyers after their first appearance in U.S. court on Tuesday on new firearms-related charges brought by the FBI.

"We need time to do our own investigation, we need time to get up to speed," Carey Bhalla, an attorney representing defendant Hujrah Wahhaj, told reporters.

Federal prosecutor George Kraehe declined to comment.

The five suspects, all black Muslims, were first arrested after police said they found 11 children without food or clean water and a cache of firearms at their desert compound in an Aug. 3 raid. Three days later police unearthed the body of a three-year-old at the settlement located near the Colorado state line.

The five had initially faced child abuse charges in state court, but that case unraveled last week as state prosecutors missed a procedural deadline and charges were dismissed, allowing three suspects to be released.

The FBI moved in on Friday and arrested all five in Taos, about 95 miles (153 km) north of Albuquerque.

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Defendants Jany Leveille (L to R) and Siraj Ibn Wahhaj talk to defense lawyer Kelly Golightley during a hearing in Taos District Court in Taos County, New Mexico, U.S., August 29, 2018. Eddie Moore/Pool via REUTERS

Jany Leveille, a Haitian national described as the spiritual leader of the group, is charged with being in the United States illegally and in unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition.

The other defendants Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40; Hujrah Wahhaj, 37; Subhanah Wahhaj, 35; and Lucas Morton, 40, are charged with aiding and conspiring with Leveille.

Bhalla said she agreed for "the most part" with comments by state defense lawyers that the five were being discriminated against for being black and Muslim and had acted within their rights of religious freedom and firearm ownership.

In an affidavit, the FBI said a teenage boy among the group told agents Ibn Wahhaj was "trying to put an army together" to conduct "jihad."

State prosecutors say they will bring charges against Leveille and her partner Siraj Ibn Wahhaj related to the toddler's death, and refile child abuse charges against the other defendants, at a Sept. 27 grand jury.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; editing by Bill Tarrant, G Crosse)

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