Uncertain Justice

Was Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega really a drug trafficker? Or is it possible he was set up by the U.S. government? Try asking a few dozen people who should know.

For more for than two years now I've been conversing with three very different men. One is probably the most respected federal judge in South Florida, the second a diplomat with a guilty conscience. And these two are linked by the story of the third, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

I wrote about Noriega in a book, America's Prisoner, published last year. America's Prisoner was really two books: the memoirs of a man universally reviled as a murderer and drug trafficker, and a brief investigation by me, in which I concluded there are substantial doubts about his guilt and the justification for bringing him back in chains at the end of the December 20, 1989, U.S. invasion of Panama. Reviews were mixed. Critics agreed with my doubts about the Noriega drug conviction, but most wondered why I would associate with a world-class sleaze.

As Latin America bureau chief for the New York daily Newsday, I had reported Noriega's fall from proud military leader to prisoner of war. The process leading to his trial began with more than a year of hearings after his arrival in Miami on January 3, 1990. And I sat through almost every day of Noriega's nine-month trial at the old downtown federal courthouse. Day after day a parade of witnesses, 26 of whom were convicted drug dealers, testified in return for plea bargains that allowed them to get out of jail and keep some of their drug profits.

But in the end, on April 9, 1992, the jury handed down a guilty verdict on eight of ten drug conspiracy counts. The panel had deliberated for several days and twice came back to the courtroom to tell U.S. District Court Judge William Hoeveler they were deadlocked. They reached a guilty verdict only after some members knelt to pray for the lone juror who had been holding out for acquittal.

The judge sentenced Noriega on July 10, 1992, to 40 years in jail. And then I began writing a book. I interviewed Noriega at least once a month for more than two years and spoke to him in long telephone interviews from his isolation cell -- two overly air-conditioned, cinder-block rooms near the medical annex at the Federal Correctional Institution in South Dade.

"AJamas, jamas, jamas!" ("Never, never, never!"), he said when I asked if he'd ever dealt drugs or ordered or participated in murder. "I am innocent."

I finished the book in 1996 and awaited final editing and publication. But I was still troubled by a feeling that the story hadn't been fully told, that I had more reporting to do. That was what prompted me to call Judge Hoeveler on the off chance that he might agree to talk. And thus began my unusual conversation with the judge, a spirited, frank exchange in which he seemed to indicate he had his own concerns about justice in the Noriega case.

I remembered that the judge had noticed me sitting in his courtroom those many months. "Who's the psychiatrist with the beard staring at me all the time?" Hoeveler had asked one of my journalist buddies.

"Just another newspaper reporter," the friend said.
So when his secretary took my call and asked, "Does he know you?" I told her to say I was the one he thought looked like Sigmund Freud. To my surprise the judge not only agreed to see me, but invited me to his home. "I'm not sure what I can do for you," he said, "but come on over."

As I drove along a tree-lined street in Coral Gables, I sensed that something was different about Miami, something poignant. There was a chill in the air. I was shivering from the cold. Judge Hoeveler, dressed for the weather in a cardigan, greeted me at the door. Though stooped a bit, he was still several inches taller than I. His house, I noticed, was modest; I felt I was visiting the home of a college professor. On a bookshelf in one corner of his upstairs library were most of the Noriega books written to date. I told him my own was about to be published.

"It's my hobby to collect them," he said, "but I haven't read one of them. I didn't want to be influenced by any of them. Perhaps after the case is settled, I shall." (With Noriega's lower-court appeals exhausted, the case has been sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide next Wednesday, April 1, whether to hear arguments. The odds of a hearing are slim; the court reviews only about 70 of about 6000 petitions made each year. If the case is taken up, however, a key issue is expected to be whether the United States had the authority to seize a foreign head of state and put him on trial. Noriega was ostensibly head of just the Panamanian Defense Forces, but the United States and other countries recognized him as de facto leader of the country.)

"I hope, in the end, we'll be able to say that justice was served," Judge Hoeveler told me during our second meeting, this time in his judicial chambers. It seemed he was implying that he had doubts himself about whether Noriega is guilty as charged. "I have no comment" was all he would say when I asked him that question directly.

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