By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
There have been events in Juan Carlos Elso's life that led U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz to describe it as "beyond tragic" last week. Before his world unraveled, Johnny, as his family calls him, was a kid from a classic middle-class Cuban-American family, a former wrestling champion at Coral Park High School, a University of Miami law graduate, a Miami-Dade County public defender, and then "J.C.," the energetic young criminal defense attorney with his own firm. But on October 19, 1997, he, his wife Diana, and his law partner Miguel Rodriguez-Betancourt and his wife, were returning to Miami after a trip to Universal Studios when an SUV cut in front of them. The van they were in swerved and flipped. The Rodriguez-Betancourts were killed in the crash. Diana died of her injuries a month later, leaving Elso to raise two small children without the woman he considered to be his soul mate.
He struggled through the catastrophe, joining the Catholic support group Emmaus and pressing on with his law practice. His clients included the typical cast of unsavory characters who grace the offices of criminal defense lawyers, including brothers Andy and Rudy Diaz, two of Miami's most notorious drug traffickers. On November 15, 2001, police stopped Elso at the corner of Flagler Street and Le Jeune Road, seizing $266,800 in cash the lawyer had in the trunk of his BMW. Elso maintained the money was payment from the Diazes for legal services. This past December 22, a federal jury found him guilty of money laundering.
Had Elso, who is 41, acted in the same manner as the Diaz brothers, he might have been out of jail in 2008, that is, by the time his son Michael turns thirteen and his daughter Alyssa sixteen. Earlier this year, the Diazes pleaded guilty to numerous counts of cocaine trafficking and money laundering, agreeing to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Many of the charges they faced were dropped; each was sentenced to a little more than four years in prison. Last week Judge Seitz sentenced Elso, who was charged only with money laundering and who had refused to plea bargain, to ten years, more than twice what the Diazes got. That means his son will be 19 and his daughter 22 when he next sees them as a free man.
"As I stand before you I quite frankly never thought I would be in this position, talking about myself and the imposition of a sentence on me," Elso said in an emotional statement to the judge last week, wearing a light green prison uniform, his ankles shackled. "I feel very ashamed, especially because of all these friends who are here because of something I was charged with and was found guilty of."
In remarks to the judge before the sentencing, Bruce Rogow, one of Elso's lawyers, conceded that his client was guilty of "absolute stupidity." But the fact that he took cash from the Diazes on several occasions, didn't get a receipt, and didn't keep records doesn't translate into a criminal scheme to launder money, argued Rogow, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. "There is not a scintilla of evidence that there was a criminal intent to avoid the law or to violate the law," said Rogow, who recently joined Mel Black and Marlene Montaner on Elso's defense team. An expert in constitutional law, Rogow will be taking the lead in the appeal, which promises to raise issues regarding the way the U.S. government sometimes prosecutes alleged drug offenders and metes out sentences.
The $266,800 that was in the trunk of Elso's BMW became the centerpiece of the prosecution's case, which rested on the ability to convince the jury that Elso had attempted to conceal the money. Prosecutors Richard Gregorie and Michael Davis argued that because the lawyer had fled, he must have known he was committing a criminal act. Police testified that they pursued Elso in unmarked cars as he zigzagged through Little Havana that afternoon, driving fifteen to twenty miles per hour over the speed limit in residential areas, running red lights and stop signs. Elso's lawyers countered that he was in the middle of rush-hour traffic and did not notice he was being chased. (Elso did not take the stand during the trial.) The jury believed the cops.
"I think that the reason why the chase became such a feature [in the prosecution] is they were trying to show guilty knowledge, that he knew he had done something wrong. That's why they had to have a chase," Rogow explained in an interview. "They said it was a chase. He didn't know it was a chase. Until they boxed him off and he couldn't go anywhere."
Rogow has qualms about the prosecutors' attempt to use the chase to lengthen the harsh sentence Elso was already sure to get. Because it was a drug-related offense, Gregorie and Davis were able to ask the judge for two more years, on the basis he had "endangered public safety." "In a reckless driving case you might get a fine. You might get a 30 days suspended sentence. But you're not going to get two years in prison," Rogow said. "But under the sentencing guidelines [for drug-related crimes] they make it much more punitive."