By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
In the federal government's zeal to make a case, the defense argues, frustrated officials have either knowingly suborned perjury or turned a blind eye to it in a vengeful quest for a conviction at any cost. They challenge a system that, in their opinion, builds cases almost entirely on the word of other drug traffickers A admitted liars who are trading their tainted testimony for reduced sentences.
"The core of the case, what it all boils down to, is whether you trust their witnesses," Weinberg told jurors in his opening statement. "And to decide whether you trust their witnesses requires you to navigate through these lies which the witnesses have mastered, because they are in jail for twenty-four hours a day and their lives are on the line, and they don't want to do twenty years in a federal jail, they don't want to do thirty years in a federal jail.
"And they have learned -- as cunning criminals, as experienced criminals, as very intelligent people -- how to avoid the consequences of their career of crime. And the way that the government witnesses in this case have chosen to avoid the consequences of being drug traffickers and drug importers and kingpins in the drug trade is to point false fingers of accusation at Sal Magluta and Willy Falc centsn."
As proof of the government's purported perversion of the system, Weinberg offered the example of Jorge Valdes, one of the prosecution's star witnesses, the man who allegedly introduced the defendants to the world of big-time smugglers. After Valdes was first arrested in 1979, he was convicted of having smuggled 200 kilos of cocaine and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He served less than five years. While on parole, he began smuggling cocaine again and was indicted in 1990, this time for smuggling 3000 kilos into the country, and, in another case, for conspiring to distribute crack cocaine.
If convicted, he faced a minimum mandatory sentence of twenty years for the cocaine case and another twenty-five for the crack charges. In addition, because the recent crimes occurred while he was on parole, he would have to finish serving the original fifteen-year sentence -- another ten years in prison.
Where is Valdes today? He is a free man, Weinberg told the jury. In exchange for his cooperation, Valdes served less than five additional years and was released from prison several months ago. "He is out of jail today, in four and a half years, because [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent] David Borah and Chris Clark went to bat for him," Weinberg said. "They rewarded him for his cooperation. And every other prisoner, every other drug trafficker who will take the stand, knows what happened to Jorge Valdes. He is their ideal. His sentence, his cut, his breaks, his ability to avoid the consequences of what he did, is what motivates ten and twenty and thirty of the government witnesses. And again, they are the foundation of this prosecution."
Prison slang for this kind of cooperation is called "jumping on the bus," in reference to the act of boarding the corrections department's bus that runs from the jail to the courthouse, the bus an inmate would take if he were going to testify against someone in court. (Prosecutors have countered by coining their own transportation metaphor, "jumping on the limousine," which refers to inmates allegedly being secretly paid to testify on behalf of Falc centsn and Magluta.)
The issue of whether to accept or reject the testimony of any of these witnesses is solely the province of the jury, Weinberg reminded them. "You will be alone to deliberate, because this society provides to you, a jury, its most awesome task, and its most awesome power," he said, "and that is the power to decide on the fate of your fellow citizens."
The verdict will be decided by the jury, but the jury was selected by the attorneys. One might think that in a trial expected to last four months, the jury would contain a preponderance of retirees. One might also anticipate mostly Anglos and Hispanics, since those groups represent more than 70 percent of Dade's registered voters, the pool from which juries are selected. In essence, then, the odds would seem to favor a jury comprising white senior citizens.
But this case is being heard by a predominantly black panel. There are five black males, two black females, two Hispanic females, one Hispanic male, and two Anglo females. The majority are in their late twenties or thirties. (All six alternates are women, four of whom are black.)
This would seem to be just what the defense wanted. Jury selection began on October 16, the day of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. A a cause for concern for defense attorney Roy Black. "I would like to know," Black asked Judge Federico Moreno before the pool of potential jurors was brought in, "if there are people who are absent because of that, because obviously we are concerned about the cross-section of the community on the panel, and this is one of those events that many people, obviously African Americans, would like to go to. And if there are people who are on our panel who are not here because of that, I think that might skew the racial makeup of the panel."