My Lawyer, the Criminal
New York City lawyer Russell Carbone and his paralegal, Henry Mejia, stumbled out of the federal courthouse in downtown Miami Friday somber and stoop-shouldered. Their suits were wrinkled. As they walked to the parking lot, they smiled wanly at their children. It was the end of a long, disappointing stay.
Quite a change from the last time they were here on business. In 1996 Carbone and Mejia were a brash legal team who traveled to the subtropics to defend Olga Lucia Agudelo, a Colombian woman accused of heroin smuggling. But last year the defenders became defendants. Miami prosecutors accused the men of fabricating an alibi for Agudelo and coaching a witness to repeat the story on the stand. Apparently Agudelo wasn't appreciative. She testified against the pair during their monthlong trial.
This past Friday a twelve-person jury found Mejia and Carbone guilty on all charges: conspiracy to obstruct justice, suborning perjury, and obstruction of justice. Carbone was also convicted of lying under oath. The two will face up to fifteen years in prison at their January 28, 2000, sentencing.
Carbone lost despite some heavy legal artillery. He was represented by Gerald Shargel, a hotshot New York attorney whose clients have included John Gotti, Sr., and John Gotti, Jr., the reputed heads of the Gambino crime family. Mejia hired less prominent counsel, Broward lawyer Chris Grillo.
Carbone, who is 45 years old, and Mejia, age 31, claim they are victims of an unfair system that demands staunch advocacy, yet allows disgruntled defendants to turn on their lawyers if something goes wrong. "With a client like Olga Agudelo, you can't win unless you actually win," Shargel said.
This past week's verdict appears to be the end of a fruitful partnership. Back in New York Carbone and Mejia made quite a team. Carbone eked out a reputation representing drug dealers and low-level hoods. Mejia, a Colombian native, was a janitor before Carbone hired him approximately five years ago to give a Hispanic-friendly air to the office. Soon Carbone was representing Colombians charged with everything from kidnapping to drug smuggling. Niche marketing, as it were. Given the intensity of the war on drugs, and the fact that Carbone was licensed to practice law in New York, New Jersey, and Florida, the future looked rosy.
Oh, there were a few missteps. Like the time in 1994 that Mejia pleaded no contest to witness tampering in a New York State court. Prosecutors accused the paralegal of trying to coerce a kidnap victim to fly home to Colombia, all expenses paid, in order to avoid testifying against an alleged kidnapper and Carbone client. (A judge gave Mejia conditional discharge.)
And then there was the 1996 incident in which Mejia posted bond for another of Carbone's defendants, a Colombian named Julio Cesar Lopez, who was accused of smuggling cocaine into the United States. As collateral Mejia offered a New York row house he had obtained ten days before cosigning the bond. According to court papers, "information from DEA sources indicates that Mr. Mejia acquired the property from a suspect in other narcotics trafficking cases."
Surprise! Lopez fled the country after he was freed. When the court tried to seize the row house, authorities learned it was in foreclosure. All this prompted New York Federal Judge John Caden to declare that "Mr. Mejia, ... it seems to me, has dedicated himself in part, as a paralegal, and perhaps working with others, in basically frustrating the ends of justice."
That brings us to Miami. In June 1996 Carbone signed on to represent Agudelo, whom the U.S. Attorney's Office had charged with smuggling three kilograms of heroin from Colombia. According to prosecutors Richard Scruggs and Bernard Pastor, Carbone was more concerned about cash than defending his client.
Agudelo testified that Carbone's fee was $60,000. She said she paid about $40,000 up-front. Although Agudelo requested a receipt, Carbone refused to supply one. "This [payment] was under the table," Pastor claims, adding that Carbone spent the time before trial trying to collect the remaining money, rather than preparing a defense.
Carbone maintains he worked hard for the cash, and it was only a small deposit. First he counseled Agudelo to plead guilty, but she refused to take his advice. Then during Agudelo's trial, which began December 18, 1996, Carbone argued that a Colombian drug dealer named Adolfo Patino framed his client. To make his case, the New York lawyer called Agudelo's half-sister Libia Porras to the stand. Porras testified to the following: Patino purchased a motorcycle-parts business from Porras and Agudelo, then failed to pay the total asking price. To escape his debt, the drug dealer recruited one of his couriers, a man who had been arrested, to implicate Agudelo in heroin smuggling. In jail Agudelo would not try to collect.
The story didn't work. The jury found Agudelo guilty. After the trial Agudelo met with a court officer for a presentencing report. Judges read such reports before deciding on a guilty defendant's punishment. During the interview Agudelo did not mention the motorcycle-parts business or the debt. When the officer questioned her, she confessed that Porras's testimony was a lie "concocted by my attorney." A month later Judge Federico Moreno sentenced Agudelo to fifteen years in prison.
In 1998 the feds arrested Porras, who immediately confessed to perjury. Porras said that Carbone and Mejia coached her in the details of the lie at the South Beach Holiday Inn. The pair had also advised Porras to leave the United States immediately after the trial. Porras's niece, Veronica Caicedo, confirmed the story. Agudelo, Porras, and Caicedo all agreed to testify against Carbone and Mejia.
During the trial defense lawyer Gerald Shargel tried to turn the tables on the accusers. He protested that Porras made up the story. Lawyers are not required to vouch for the veracity of witnesses' testimony, he said. But the jury wasn't having any of it. "Criminal defense lawyers are held in low esteem by the public, and I just wonder what role that played in the jury's decision," Shargel said.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.