The Noriega Conviction

April 10, 1992

Manuel Noriega's defense attorney said over and again during the trial of his client that the case "smelled all the way to Washington." In fact, many professionals in the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department in Washington reportedly opposed prosecuting the Panamanian dictator on drug-related charges, on the grounds that this would harm inter-American relations and reveal embarrassing facts about U.S. activities. This appeared to be a non-political criminal prosecution urged on by low-level law enforcement types in Florida.

In any event, whatever the motives for the indictment and trial, it cannot be said that the conviction was political in any way. The jurors were not members of the Bush administration. They were ordinary American citizens who accepted an onerous responsibility and performed it well. One may question the wisdom of having the trial, one may even have doubts about the verdict. But the unbiased jurors sat through every hour of the seven-month-long trial; they considered and debated the evidence for five full days. No outside observer can honestly substitute with confidence his or her opinion of Noriega's guilt or innocence for that of those jurors.

Judge William Hoeveler, who sat through the seven months, of course, thanked the jurors for their extraordinary service, and he praised the defense and prosecution. He deserves credit, too, ,, for fairly managing what could have been an impossible case. (Though we had considerable doubts about his handling of some coverage aspects of the trial.) There is nothing routine about a case in which the former head of a sovereign nation is brought to the bar of justice in another country by armed military intervention.

President Bush said he "hopes" that the Noriega conviction will deter "drug lords here and around the world." He is entitled to hope. We hope the same thing. But it is unlikely that even so high-profile a conviction, so clear a message of the federal government's anti-drug commitment is going to stop the trafficking of cocaine and other illegal drugs into the United States as long as there is so great a demand.

In the long run, educating Americans, especially young ones, not to use narcotics and eradicating the pre-conditions of despair that foster much narcotic use in this country are the best weapons in the war against drugs.

Still, the prosecutions must continue. That is obvious. If a Manuel Noriega can be convicted, so can any drug lord, no matter how powerful. Such convictions, as we say, may not stop drug trafficking, but they can reduce it, slow it down until the day when there is no longer a market for the deadly commodity.

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