Noriega: How The Feds Got Their Man

It may have been the costliest criminal conviction in history. To catch Manuel Antonio Noriega, the U.S. government had to invade Panama with 27,000 troops, resulting in the deaths of 23 U.S. soldiers and several hundred Panamanians. Operation Just Cause was expensive, too: it cost American taxpayers $164 million. And to convict the former dictator, prosecutors made deals with more than a dozen drug traffickers, dropping charges, offering reduced sentences and allowing some to keep their fortunes from selling cocaine.

In the end, it worked. Last week a Miami jury convicted Panama's former "Maximum Leader" of helping the world's most notorious drug cartel smuggle cocaine into the United States from 1981 to 1986. Noriega was found guilty on eight of 10 counts, including racketeering, conspiracy, distribution and money laundering. The first foreign leader to be convicted of violating U.S. law, Noriega now faces up to 120 years in prison. Yet the seven-month trial focused attention on the questionable tactics prosecutors sometimes use to nail high-profile defendants like Noriega. His conviction came the same week that the Supreme Court limited the ability of government agencies to conduct so-called sting operations, reversing the conviction of a Nebraska farmer who purchased child pornography from Postal Service agents. Together, the two cases raise a basic question for law enforcement: how far is too far?

The government's legal case against Noriega was not strong. There was little eyewitness testimony linking the general to the charges. Prosecutors had to rely on the testimony of unsavory characters like Carlos Lehder, cofounder of the Medellin cartel, who said his associates paid Noriega millions to permit drug pilots to stop in Panama en route to the United States. In exchange, the government moved Lehder into a new prison under the witness-protection program, flew his family to safety in the United States and agreed to inform the court of his cooperation (chart). "He's probably playing tennis somewhere with Ivan Boesky," sniped one Democratic congressional aide.

In his closing argument, Noriega lawyer Frank Rubino joked that the prosecution arranged so many deals that the trial "is going to relieve prison crowding." Even Judge William Hoeveler expressed concern, saying "the plea bargain may be on trial in this case." New York Democratic Rep. Charles Schumer, who prepared a critical report on the deals given to the "Felonious 15," says that prosecutors, "in their understandable desire to make sure he was convicted, went into a frenzy and gave away too much."

Striking a deal with convicted felons is nothing new for prosecutors. Some violent crimes, like rape or murder, often have eyewitnesses. Drug trafficking and white-collar fraud can be more difficult to investigate because potential informants are involved in the crimes. The government has no choice but to join the criminals to beat them. " There are no swans in sewers," says Attorney General William Barr.

But usually prosecutors negotiate with the little fish in an effort to reel in the big ones. In the Noriega case, critics say the food chain was reversed because of political pressure applied in Washington. "Lehder was the biggest drug enemy we had," says Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who believes it's a "disgrace" that Lehder's lifetime sentence was sacrificed for Noriega. DeConcini has introduced a bill restricting the ability of prosecutors to enter into plea agreements. The Justice Department denies that Lehder or any other witness got a "sweetheart deal. " " We did not give him a get-out-of-jail-free card," says one official.

There were questions, too, about the value of the information that Lehder and other drug dealers provided. "Who is in a better position than Carlos Lehder to know what is going on inside the Medellin cartel?" said Noriega prosecutor Myles Malman. Yet, as defense attorneys noted, Lehder and other witnesses had never met Noriega, only "heard" he had been bought off. The Justice Department said the former leader was a "midwife" for the birth of the Medellin cartel. But prosecution witnesses testified that by the mid-1980s, when Noriega took full control of Panama, he was trying to distance himself from drugrunners.

The government is not likely to give up using plea bargains. In fact, prosecutors don't rule out making a deal with Noriega himself After all, he has valuable information about drug trafficking, and he may be willing to cooperate in exchange for a reduced sentence. The general, now 58, still has a shot at a Florida retirement.

..CN.-'Sweetheart' Deals

Key witnesses against Noriega exchanged testimony for leniency:

..CN.-Carlo Lehder

Sentenced in 1988 to life plus 135 years on drug, racketeering charges.

Moved to witness-protection program (WPP); family in WPP; cooperation to be noted by court.

..CN.-Luis del Cid

Noriega's "errand boy" could have received 70 years on drug, racketeering charges,

Prosecutors suggest: 10-year maximum sentence; release of $94,000 pension; no deportation.

..CN.-Max Mermelstein

"Transportation arm" faced life plus go.

Served 2 years, 21 days; given $700,000 in reward, WPP money.

..CN.-Floyd Carlton

Ex-pilot's charges included smuggling 880 pounds of cocaine.

Admitted guilt on 1 count; 9-year sentence suspended in 1990; free on 3-year probation.