WASHINGTON -- In another major setback to the prosecution of Iran-contra cases, a federal appeals panel scrapped yesterday the convictions of John M. Poindexter, the highest-ranking figure to stand trial in the scandal that rocked the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Poindexter, 54, Mr. Reagan's national security adviser and a retired rear admiral, won a reversal of his five felony convictions and six-month jail sentence from two Reagan-appointed judges, Douglas H. Ginsburg and David B. Sentelle. A third judge on the panel, Democrat Abner Mikva, dissented.
Last year, two Reagan-appointed judges, Laurence H. Silberman and Judge Sentelle, formed a similar 2-1 majority to nullify three felony convictions of Oliver L. North, a former aide to Mr. Poindexter at the White House and a central Iran-contra figure. Later, the North case was dismissed.
The appellate judges gave a similar reason for reversing both the Poindexter and North convictions: that the defendants had been stripped of their Fifth Amendment right not to be incriminated by their nationally publicized testimony before Congress in July 1987.
Both men had agreed to testify in Congress on condition that their statements would not be used against them in a criminal prosecution, either directly or through other witnesses.
The next move is up to independent prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, who said he was considering an appeal to the Supreme Court. If he chooses to retry the case, he must first prove that the grand jury indictment of Mr. Poindexter was untainted by his congressional testimony.
While the appeals court panel was announcing its reversal of the Poindexter convictions, U.S. District Judge Aubrey Robinson was sentencing former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams to serve two years on probation and perform 100 hours of community service for withholding Iran-contra information from Congress.
Judge Robinson suggested that Abrams might instruct local lawyers on ethical problems.
Mr. Poindexter was charged with deceiving Congress in 1985 and 1986 about the Reagan administration's secret campaign to provide military aid to the Nicaraguan contras despite a congressional ban, to sell weapons to the Khomeini regime in Iran despite its links to terrorism and to divert $12 million in arms revenues to the contras.
Judge Ginsburg wrote for the appeals panel that it would be "pointless" to return the Poindexter case to the trial court to permit Mr. Walsh to try to prove that Mr. Poindexter's congressional testimony had not seeped into his trial. The court record "plainly demonstrates" that Mr. Walsh could not produce such proof, Judge Ginsburg declared.
Replied Judge Mikva in dissent: "In United States vs. North, this court changed the standards the special prosecutor had to meet; today we refuse to let him try to meet them."