1 minute read

Manuel Noriega Trial: 1991

Cartel Contacts Revealed, Judge Taken Iii, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendant: Manuel Antonio Noriega
Crime Charged: Drug trafficking, racketeering, and conspiracy
Chief Defense Lawyers: Jon May and Frank A. Rubino
Chief Prosecutors: James McAdams, Myles Malman, and Michael P. Sullivan
Judge: William M. Hoeveler
Place: Miami, Florida
Dates of Trial: September 6, 1991-April 9, 1992
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 40 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: This landmark trial marked the first time that a former head of a foreign government had ever faced criminal charges in an American court of law.

At 45 minutes past midnight on December 20, 1988, U.S. armed forces began the costliest and deadliest arrest mission in history, when 25,000 troops invaded Panama, all looking for one man, General Manuel Antonio Noriega, dictator of that country and suspected conduit for the flow of cocaine into America. After holing up at the Papal Embassy for two weeks, Noriega meekly surrendered and was flown to Miami, Florida, to face charges of drug trafficking.

The five-year running battle between the U.S. Government and General Noriega entered its climactic phase when his trial began September 5, 1991. Following a week given over to the demanding process of jury selection, Michael Sullivan opened for the government. He derided Noriega as a "small man in a general's uniform," who gave his "permission, authorization, and encouragement to a scheme to transform his nation into an international cocaine trafficking and manufacturing center."

In a surprise move, defense counsel Frank Rubino waived his right to deliver an opening statement to the jury, choosing instead to wait until the prosecution had revealed its entire hand before deciding what direction the defense should take.

After various academic witnesses provided some background on Panama's geopolitical history, the prosecution really got into gear when Lieutenant Colonel Luis del Cid, a close aide to Noriega for 25 years, took the stand. Like many of the prosecution witnesses, Cid was himself facing drug charges and had agreed to testify against Noriega only in return for a lighter sentence. Describing himself as Noriega's "errand boy, bodyguard and bagman," he told of suitcases stuffed with cash arriving from Colombia, either as a payoff for Noriega or to be laundered through Panamanian banks. An extraordinary interlude came when Cid, asked to identify the defendant, leapt to attention as his former boss stood up. Those in court half expected the witness to salute.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994