In the year since a defeated Manuel Noriega was dramatically delivered to the U.S. justice system, sideshows and legal maneuvers have repeatedly sidetracked the drug-trafficking case against him.
Red underwear, tape-recorded conversations, frozen Swiss bank accounts, missing documents, contempt charges against a television network, an exercise bicycle and endless wrangling over attorneys' fees have overshadowed what was billed as a showcase trial that would cap the U.S. invasion of Panama."There have been a lot of twists and turns," U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler reflected in an interview earlier this month. "It's like the quest for the Holy Grail."
Amid the hoopla, prosecutors have strengthened their case quietly by plea bargaining with co-conspirators who may be able to tie the deposed Panamanian leader directly to drug payoffs.
The latest coup was a guilty plea Dec. 6 by Luis del Cid, a former Noriega aide who confessed to handing drug cash directly to his boss.
"The most important developments have been the increased evidence," said U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen. As for the unexpected hitches, he said, "They will disappear and become a footnote to history."
Just when that increased evidence will be heard by a jury is unclear. Since Noriega's Jan. 3 surrender, the trial date has slipped from March 1990 to January 1991 to spring 1991. The defense has asked it be postponed at least until June.
Panama, meanwhile, is pursuing a $6.5 billion damage suit against Noriega, and has asked for his extradition to face charges of murdering a major who attempted a 1989 coup. On Friday, the head of the Panamanian Supreme Court said Noriega also is suspected in the 1985 decapitation slaying of leftist opponent Hugo Spadafora.
Lead defense attorney Frank Rubino says he believes - or at least hopes - the drug case will be over in another year.
"I think the general will be back in Panama and running the country," Rubino says.
But he's not sure he'll be the winning attorney. Rubino has announced he will withdraw unless the government finds a way to unfreeze some of $20 million tied up in European bank accounts.
He says he and his two fellow attorneys often work until 11:30 p.m. even though they haven't been paid since Noriega's surrender in January. Rubino has been forced to take other cases to pay the bills, he complains, giving him even less time to work on the complicated case.
"I would have thought that they would try to give the general a fair trial, instead of doing everything they can to thwart it," Rubino said.
Rubino's complaints forced the U.S. government to ask reluctant European authorities to release millions of dollars to the man the United States accuses of accepting $4.6 million from Colombia's Medellin cocaine cartel to protect U.S.-bound drug shipments.
"It's peculiar on its face," Lehtinen said. "But it's the same tension that is always apparent when the government believes a person is guilty, yet still has a right to a fair trial."
Noriega spurned a deal to give up power in exchange for dismissal of his February 1988 indictments. His capture - complete with red underwear purportedly to ward off the "evil eye," suspected cocaine that turned out to be tamale powder, and rock 'n' roll music blared into the Vatican Embassy - resulted from an invasion the defense tried to have ruled illegal.
But the defense won a battle to prove Noriega was a prisoner of war, entitling him to wear his uniform in court and receive a Red Cross allotment. When the United States opposed initial efforts to unfreeze the accounts because they were drug-tainted, the defense responded by saying Noriega had received $11 million from U.S. intelligence agencies.
U.S. immigration officials then revealed they had enough evidence to indict Noriega for alien smuggling as soon as his drug trial was over, prompting a horrified U.S. attorney's office to announce no such indictment was planned.
Michael O'Kane, an attorney for co-defendant Daniel Miranda, angered Noriega's lawyers when he sued the former Panamanian leader on behalf of two photographers injured during the U.S. invasion. The combative O'Kane also produced documents that suggested the government had removed some secret papers from files confiscated in Panama, a charge the government has denied.
Noriega's quarters at the Metropolitan Correctional Center outside of Miami aroused ire in Congress when it was revealed he had an exercise bicycle, a phone, a telecopier and a computer. Prison officials said security requirements made it cheaper to outfit the cell than move Noriega.
Perhaps the biggest flap came over Noriega's taped prison phone conversations, some of which were telecast by Cable News Network. Hoeveler ordered the network to stop, an order the U.S. Supreme Court allowed to remain in force until the judge examined the tapes and decided they were harmless to the defense. CNN still faces possible contempt penalties in that case.