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.

"We exercise tremendous care when relying on accomplice testimony to look for corroboration, verification to satisfy ourselves that it is valid testimony," Coffey says, "and we intend to continue using it. We believe we put people on the stand who had truthful information to provide. I'm not going to sit now and postmortem every witness any more than I am going to sit now and criticize the jury."

Experts say it is rare for prosecutors to face defense attorneys who know more about the government's witnesses than the government itself does. But that is exactly what happened in the Willy and Sal case. In addition to spending untold millions on attorneys, Falc centsn and Magluta also hired a score of private investigators who fanned out across the United States and throughout Latin America to track down incriminating information about the government's witnesses. "What made the difference was the fact that Sal Magluta and Willy Falc centsn were willing to fight this and fund an investigation that could expose all of these things," says Black, who adds this victory to a growing string of wins, including his representation of William Kennedy Smith and former Miami police officer William Lozano. "How many people can afford to hunt these things down? Do you know how many witnesses we investigated before the trial? They called about 30 accomplice witnesses, but they had given us notice on their witness list of about 81, and added 4 or 5 more just before trial." (Black, Krieger, and Weinberg refused to answer questions about their fees or the overall cost of preparing for trial during the last four years.)

Among the government's many witnesses, Nestor Galeano proved to be a favorite of the defense team. His testimony, they believe, was also a turning point in the case. Before the trial commenced, defense attorneys obtained several letters Galeano had written in prison to a friend in Colombia, fellow cocaine smuggler Manuel Garces. In those letters, Galeano eloquently explained his belief that the American justice system is corrupt, and that the only way to deal with it is to play along, to do whatever it takes to get out of prison, including, defense attorneys claimed, lying on the witness stand to please prosecutors. "Those letters were an overwhelming embarrassment to the government," says Krieger. "Or at least they should be."

Galeano's testimony about drug shipments in the Eighties initially appeared to be very damaging to Falc centsn and Magluta. On the witness stand, he told jurors they could believe him because he wasn't anticipating any special consideration from the government, even though he was awaiting sentencing on drug charges in New York and expected to receive a prison term of 30 years.

But on cross-examination, his credibility was ruined. Weinberg began questioning him about his views of the American system of justice and about prosecutors intimidating witnesses into testifying. Galeano said he didn't know what the attorney was talking about. Then Weinberg held up several handwritten letters and began reading them aloud. "'The justice system is implacable when it comes to "dealing," and the sentences are terrible, as is the entire trial process,'" Weinberg read. "'What justice? Whoever falls gets his lights put out, and they pile years on you by the truckload. If there are no witnesses, they make them up, same with the evidence, or else they look for some acquaintance with a good memory. They invent an indictment and God help you!'"

Weinberg asked Galeano if he knew the author of the letters from which he was reading. The witness admitted the letters were his, written to a drug-smuggling cohort in Colombia. Prosecutors hurriedly rose in objection and the jury was ushered out of the courtroom. After a heated debate on the admissibility of the letters, Judge Moreno agreed that defense attorneys had a right to use them.

When the jury returned, Weinberg continued to read excerpts. In the letters, Galeano -- contrary to his earlier testimony that he wasn't expecting help from prosecutors in reducing his sentence -- wrote that he expected to be back in Colombia in about a year because of his testimony against Falc centsn and Magluta.

Galeano also wrote that not long after he was arrested, "these stars arrived" with mug shots of Falc centsn and Magluta. Weinberg asked the witness what he meant by stars. "The light," Galeano responded. "When you are in prison, you are in the dark. When you get the stars, you get the light." He went on to explain that the stars were the prosecutors and DEA agents who would visit him in his cell and offer him a reduced sentence in return for his cooperation.

Weinberg continued reading: "'They made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Are you with us or against us? Imagine another indictment for racketeering or organized crime, with a minimum of life, which means 25 years more, and me without a lawyer, broke and more cooked than a fish in a pan -- in other words, fried!'"

Putting down the letter for a moment, Weinberg looked at Galeano and asked, "Those are your words, are they not, sir?"

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