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Noriega Convicted on 8 Drug and Racketeering Charges

By Robert L. Jackson
and Mike Clary

Los Angeles Times

MIAMI

Deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega was convicted on eight of 10 drug and racketeering charges Thursday, two years after the United States took the extraordinary step of invading a foreign country to bring its leader to trial.

The jury returned its verdict on the fifth day of deliberations, just 11 hours after signaling to U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler that they feared they were deadlocked.

Noriega, 58, sitting ramrod straight in his general's uniform at the defense table, showed no emotion as a court clerk read eight "guilty" verdicts and two "not guilty" verdicts on lesser charges. Seated nearby in the front row of the packed courtroom were his wife, Felicidad, and three grown daughters, two of whom wiped away tears from their eyes as they listened to the verdicts.

As the courtroom emptied, defense attorney Frank Rubino put his arm around Noriega's shoulder and whispered briefly to him. Noriega was then led away by U.S. marshals to a private room to confer with his family.

Hoeveler set sentencing for July 10.

Convicted of allowing Colombia's Medellin drug cartel to ship tons of U.S.-bound cocaine through Panama in return for cash payoffs, Noriega could receive a maximum sentence of 120 years in prison and almost $1 million in fines.

President Bush hailed the verdict as "a major victory against the drug lords."

"He was accorded a free and fair trial and he was found guilty," Bush said during a picture-taking session at the start of a meeting in the White House with Nicaraguan President Violetta Chamorro.

"I hope it sends a lesson to drug lords here and around the world that they'll pay a price if they continue to poison the lives of our kids in this country or anywhere else."

The verdict was crucial for the Bush administration, which took a politically risky step when it invaded Panama in December 1989 to bring Noriega to trial. "Not guilty" verdicts or a hung jury would have been deeply embarrassing to the White House.

Rubino, declaring he was "bitter" about the verdict, called the trial "a political case, not a drug case." He said he would appeal the verdict on government misconduct issues, including the invasion, as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

"A new page has been written in American history," Rubino said. "The U.S. government, in its role as world policeman, saw fit to invade a country and seize its leader. The jury has condoned that action and sent a message to the rest of the world's leaders that you, too, may soon be in our courthouse."

Calling Noriega's prosecution "a modern-day version of the Crusades," Rubino added that "the United States is trampling across the entire world imposing its will unless they (foreign leaders) are willing to kneel once a day and face Washington and give praise to George Bush."

He said Noriega had no personal reaction although his family was "horribly dejected about the verdict."

Authorities said that Noriega, after his sentencing, still faced another federal indictment in Tampa, Fla. on charges of massive marijuana smuggling into the United States. In addition, the government of Panama hopes to try him on charges that he ordered the murder of a political opponent in 1985 and committed acts of malfeasance in office.

James McAdams, the acting U.S. attorney in Miami, said he had no idea when or if Noriega would be sent to Panama on such charges. Officials expect him to be sentenced to a long prison term in the United States.

Attorney General William P. Barr, in a statement released in Washington, called the verdict "an historic accomplishment and a great victory for the rule of law and for the American people."

Lead prosecutor Michael P. Sullivan attributed the outcome to "so much effort by so many prosecutors, agents and staff," adding: "It was worth it all."

The trial began Sept. 5 and lasted seven months -- including a seven-week recess after Christmas while the judge recuperated from emergency heart surgery -- and testimony filled 17,000 pages.

The government put 51 witnesses on the stand to prove its case, including at least 18 confessed or convicted drug offenders, some of whom gave first-hand accounts of payoffs to Noriega by Colombian drug lords. Others offered circumstantial evidence of the massive bribery scheme.

The prosecution cost an estimated $5 million or more. Included were a three-year investigation of Noriega's crimes, fees to informants, the living expenses of federally protected witnesses and the salaries of perhaps 30 to 50 federal agents and government lawyers who worked on the case.

The jury subsequently convicted Noriega of all charges that he accepted cash payments for protecting cocaine shipments through Panama from 1981 through 1986. Key testimony came from the government's star witness, Floyd Carlton-Caceres, the former confidant and personal pilot who Noriega sent as his emissary to the Medellin cartel.

The only charges rejected by the jury involved two lesser counts that Noriega had protected three associates on a cocaine-bearing voyage aboard a yacht named "the Krill."