Noriega Jury Pool Draws A Strange Mix
MIAMI (AP) _ A jury pool with connections to the invasion of Panama, a CIA-linked airline, Mad magazine and undercover drug stings was being grilled for Manuel Noriega’s drug and racketeering trial.
If U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler succeeds in seating a 12-member jury and six alternates by late today, opening statements could begin Monday. If not, they are likely to wait until after Wednesday’s Yom Kippur holiday.
Meanwhile, New York Newsday reported today that the U.S. government has signed a deal with Carlos Lehder, the Colombian drug king serving a life sentence in a federal prison in Illinois, to testify against Noriega.
Noriega’s lead defense attorney Frank Rubino told The Associated Press that he had heard news reports of the negotiations with Lehder, but that federal prosecutors had not notified him as of Thursday.
Noriega, the deposed leader of Panama, is charged with turning his nation into a transfer point for U.S.-bound cocaine. Prosecutors say he accepted at least $10 million in bribes from Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel. He faces a maximum 140 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
On Thursday, the fifth day of jury selection, the judge and attorneys whittled down the 180-candidate jury pool - and ran into a strange mix of candidates.
Mary Jean Bastian, whose husband James Bastian is chairman of the Miami- based Southern Air Transport company - formerly owned by the CIA - said she was no stranger to court.
Her husband’s company recently lost a libel lawsuit against a Miami television station that aired a report saying cocaine was loaded on a Southern Air plane in Colombia. But Southern Air won a damage lawsuit by Contra supply pilot Eugene Hasenfus, whose crash in Nicaragua touched off the Iran-Contra affair.
Noriega’s defense strategy is expected to claim that some of the deposed Panamanian leader’s drug dealing was U.S.-approved as part of that same Contra supply pipeline set up by Oliver North.
Despite those connections, Mrs. Bastian said serving on the jury would not be a problem.
″I feel like I’d be perfectly fair,″ she told the court.
Also questioned was Marta Leon, who said her ex-husband was once a newspaper cartoonist and currently draws the long-running Mad magazine comic strip, ″Spy vs. Spy.″
She said she would have no trouble judging Noriega fairly.
Prospective juror Victor Sanchez was called to a bench conference after he told federal prosecutor Guy Lewis both his sons took part in the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama that resulted in Noriega’s capture. But he was not bumped from the pool.
Jane Buhager told a hushed courtroom that while in college in Dayton, Ohio, a decade ago, she went undercover at a local high school and made drug buys. She said she later testified against some of the defendants in the Dayton case, but insisted she could be an objective juror in Noriega’s trial.
Newsday, meanwhile, quoted unnamed sources who said the government might ease up on Lehder’s life-plus-135-year term in return for testimony that would outline the Medellin cartel’s connections with the deposed Panamanian leader.
Sources told the newspaper that Lehder would be allowed to transfer out of the Marion Federal Penitentiary to another prison in exchange for his testimony. Lehder also would be given another identity under the Federal Witness Protection Program and some sort of sentencing reduction.
Lehder’s attorney, Jose Quinon, told Newsday that his client had not discussed the plea agreement with him.
″I was surprised, to say the least, because no one has spoken to me about this,″ Quinon said.