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Manuel Noriega Trial: 1991

Judge Taken Iii

The much-awaited defense strategy had be put on hold when Judge William Hoeveler was stricken by illness and had to undergo open heart surgery. After more than a six-week delay, Noriega's team finally got its chance. The defense attorneys provided few surprises and none of the bombshells that had been predicted. Attorney Jon May portrayed Noriega as one of America's greatest allies in the fight against drugs. The level and quality of cooperation he gave the United States, May proclaimed "unprecedented among the leaders of Central and South American nations Over and over the U.S. came to General Noriega for assistance," when it served "our national interest to use that relationship in times of crisis."

Some evidence to support that contention came from Thomas Telles, former head of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Panamanian office. He said that Noriega had promised to help the United States in identifying cartel members' bank accounts, monitoring movements of their money, and seizing the chemicals needed to make cocaine.

Further confirming Noriega's ties to U.S. policy was Donald Winters, Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Panama from 1984 to 1986. Over a period of 15 years, he said, Noriega provided Washington with considerable information about Fidel Castro, information deemed so useful that then CIA Director William Casey made a personal visit in 1984 to thank the Panamanian dictator. Asked to characterize the nature of the meeting, Winters said, "I would describe it as something more substantial than a courtesy call."

Throughout the trial Noriega remained impassive and largely silent, He did not take the stand in his own defense. After almost seven months, closing arguments finally began on March 31, 1992. Describing Noriega as "nothing more than a corrupt, crooked and rotten cop [who] sold his uniform, his army and his protection to a murderous criminal gang called the Medellin cocaine cartel," Assistant U.S. Attorney Myles Malman said that Noriega had been responsible for polluting U.S. streets with "tons and tons of a deadly white powder." Malman admitted that many of the prosecution witnesses were less than model citizens, but as he put it, law enforcement officials must use "small fish" to catch "big fish" and Noriega was "the biggest fish of all."

It was an argument bitterly denounced by Frank Rubino. "This indictment stinks," he told the jurors, "It stinks like dead fish. It smells from here to Washington." The case against Noriega, he said, was predicated solely on the theory that "if you throw enough mud against a wall, some of it will stick." He zeroed in on the more than 20 prosecution witnesses already convicted of drug offenses. "They are the scum of the earth. These people are disgusting. What kind of morals do these people have?" He reserved his most acerbic condemnation for Carlos Ledher Rivas, whom he called "the Charles Manson of this case."

Over five difficult and often stormy days, the jury deliberated. At one point the recalcitrance of a single juror threatened to bring about a mistrial, but on April 9 they found Noriega guilty on eight charges, while acquitting him of two.

Two months later, Judge Hoeveler sentenced Noriega to 40 years imprisonment.

In the years since his conviction, Noriega has maintained that he was not given a fair trial. In 1996, he appealed his conviction on the basis that a key witness had been bribed to testify against him. Noriega's attorneys sought a new trial based on the revelation that a key government witness connected to the Cali drug cartel had been paid $1.25 million to testify against Noriega. However, a federal judge ruled that Noriega was not entitled to a new trial.

Noriega was not deterred by this ruling. In 1997, he returned to the public spotlight when his book, America's Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega, was published. In the book, Noriega exposed covert dealings with the U.S. government, including dealings with Oliver North and former president George Bush. Still, the book did little to help Noriega's public image within the United States.

In 1999, Noriega's 40-year sentence was reduced to 30 years. He was eligible for parole in mid-2000.

In political, criminal, and economic terms, the trial of General Manuel Noriega is without equal. By some estimates it cost $168 million to convict him. More certain is the expense in American lives: 25 killed in the invasion. What impact Noriega's incarceration has on the flow of drugs into the United States remains to be seen.

Colin Evans and

Ron Formica

Suggestions for Further Reading

Booth, Cathy. "The Trial Of Manuel Noriega." The Los Angeles Daily Jouwrnal (April 7, 1992): 6ff.

Dinges, John. Our Man in Panama. New York: Random House, 1990.

Kempe, Frederick. Divorcing the Dictator. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990.

Koster, R. Medellin and Guillermo Sanchez. In the Time of the Tyrants. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990.

McDonald, Marci. "Threat Of The Beast." Maclean's (September 16, 1991): 22ff.

Noriega, Manuel, and Peter Eisner. America's Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega. New York: Acacia Press, 1997.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994Manuel Noriega Trial: 1991 - Cartel Contacts Revealed, Judge Taken Iii, Suggestions For Further Reading