U.S. vs. Noriega

September 05, 1991

Says Judge William Hoeveler, who will preside over the trial of deposed Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega: "As far as I'm concerned, the trial will be conducted just like any other trial."

Oh, sure, just another trial, except for the fact that the defendant was head of a sovereign nation, that he surrendered to law enforcement authorities only after his country was invaded by U.S. troops, that he was secretly on the U.S. payroll for years, that Fidel Castro may be a witness, that an informant has received $510,000 from the United States since agreeing to testify against the general and that the defense strategy is to subpoena every top secret U.S. document extant dealing with Latin America while claiming that the defendant was arrested and charged only because he wouldn't help overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Except for those and a few other unique aspects, it will be just another trial (assuming no last-minute plea bargain, which is possible).

We don't mean by this skepticism to suggest that we agree with General Noriega's defense attorney, who claims, "Simply put, it's a political prosecution. They're prosecuting the leader of a sovereign nation." We do not agree with that at all. General Noriega is being prosecuted so far as we can tell because U.S. attorneys in Florida believed he was engaged in a criminal enterprise that facilitated the shipment of billions of dollars worth of cocaine into the United States.

Whether this is a wise prosecution is another matter. Many serious career officials in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency thought it was a mistake to indict General Noriega; they feared a trial could be embarrassing if not damaging to U.S. interests in the hemisphere. These strike us as reasonable fears.

But he was indicted and arrested, and now the problem is to provide a fair trial of a defendant who is, in the eyes of the law, no different than any other kingpin in a drug case, regardless of his former station in life, and who also is, in the eyes of the law, innocent until proven guilty. It will be very difficult to do; it will be anything but routine; it will not be just another trial; but we believe it can be a fair one.

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