The Impossible Victory

The feds spent years building their case against drug kingpins Willy Falc centsn and Sal Maglutaa. Life in prison was assured. Too bad the jury didn't see it that way.

The trial of Willy Falc centsn and Sal Magluta will best be remembered for the 27 informants called by prosecutors to testify, each of whom was then decimated by the defense's tag-team approach to cross-examination. "Before the trial started," Black concedes, "we thought the most frightening thing would be if the government tried the case in three or four weeks, pared it down to a handful of their major witnesses, worked on those witnesses, put them on, and then got out and put on whatever corroboration they had. If they did that, we thought it would be a tougher case. Thankfully, that didn't happen."

Instead, Black and his defense teammates say, the government called informant after informant -- each more sleazy than the last -- all of whom testified against Falc centsn and Magluta in hopes of having their prison terms reduced. For some of these witnesses, serving twenty or thirty years for a variety of crimes, cooperating with prosecutors was their only hope for early release.

The government's ability to offer rewards in exchange for testimony was successfully exploited by the defense: None of those witnesses, they argued, could be trusted because they were all lying to win their freedom. "Under federal law, if I were to give a witness five dollars to obtain his testimony, I've violated the law; it's a major felony," points out Krieger, whose past clients have included New York Mafia chieftain John Gotti. "The government can give liberty, the government can give a person back his freedom, the government can give money, the government can give absolution. The reason I can be prosecuted for giving a witness five dollars is because Congress in its infinite wisdom knows that testimony obtained in that fashion is untrustworthy. Well, the other side of that coin should be testimony obtained through this corrupt plea-bargaining process is similarly untrustworthy. A man's liberty should not be deprived on the basis of it. I find it offensive."

Martin Weinberg elaborates: "[Prosecutor] Chris Clark used a blueprint that has been used very effectively by prosecutors since 1987 . . . to gain convictions, which is to simply throw at the jury every prisoner-informant who provides them with information that damages the defendant. And they hope the jury is going to say, 'Well, if so many people say it, it must be true.' But what happened in this case is that their worst witnesses spilled over and poisoned the better witnesses. We were able to create not just reasonable doubt but to prove perjury. And when you prove perjury about witnesses A, B, and C, then the jury automatically distrusts witnesses D, E, and F."

Krieger agrees: "Some of the witnesses were so bad they infected those who were not so bad."

"We had witnesses in this case who admitted committing perjury every time they had ever given testimony before," Black adds incredulously. "Sitting there, you would have to say, 'My God, how could anyone rely on these people?' When you think about it, it is frightening. Some of the people who testified were truly frightening -- people like Tony Posada.

"Tony Posada is the worst witness I have ever seen in my entire career," Black continues. "Here is a guy who has been convicted in five or six different cases; the last case involved some 70 counts of bank fraud. Every time he gets arrested he comes up with some story about either working for the DEA or the Secret Service or some other agency to try and lie his way out of it. The last time this guy gets arrested with counterfeit money, counterfeit securities, he tells all the agents that he is really working for the Secret Service agent in Miami -- who has never even met the guy. But still they called Tony Posada as a witness against Willy and Sal. How could you ever rely on one word he was saying? This guy could be telling the God's honest truth and you could never believe him."

In court Posada testified about several loads of cocaine transported from Colombia to Florida by Falc centsn and Magluta in 1979 and 1980 -- drug deals that had already been detailed by other witnesses. The government's decision to call Posada as a witness baffled defense attorneys. He added nothing new for the jury, but allowed the defense another opportunity to argue that prosecutors were relying too heavily on known liars.

"The government didn't need Tony Posada as a witness," Black says. "That's just being greedy, calling in a guy like him. He was so bad. We had the transcript from Posada's last sentencing in Fort Pierce, where the government prosecutor in that case said you could never believe anything Posada said. This was a representative of the United States government saying, 'I could never use this man as a witness; you could never believe him.' And then the prosecutors in Miami turn around and use this guy as a witness."

Kendall Coffey, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, staunchly defends his office's handling of this prosecution. "I'm not going to point-counterpoint a particular defense lawyer's observations," Coffey demurs, adding that "it wouldn't be responsible or compelling to rest your case after half a dozen witnesses. This was a huge case, and a huge case in order to be credible is going to require a substantial amount of evidence. At the end of the day, if you're taking the position that these defendants were two of the biggest, the worst, and the most serious drug dealers ever tried in South Florida, you'd better have a lot of evidence and you'd better have a lot of witnesses and you'd better be able to nail down every possible source of doubt that the defense will skillfully try to create.

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