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Credibility of Convicted Spy Issue in Miller Trial

April 27, 1986|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

The woman on the witness stand was an adulterous Russian emigre and a convicted Soviet spy who had suddenly changed her story--proclaiming the innocence of former FBI Agent Richard W. Miller.

She was also the same woman who had allegedly told the FBI she was both the daughter and the lover of former Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov and once told Miller she was a major in the Soviet KGB.

On one occasion, she supposedly claimed to be a French movie actress living in a Bel-Air mansion, instead of the wife of an immigrant meatpacker residing in a West Hollywood apartment.

In her own trial, Svetlana Ogorodnikova was portrayed by her lawyers as an emotionally troubled alcoholic with an IQ of 74. The prosecutors called her a manipulative, low-level Soviet agent, unhappy with her life in the United States.

Only last week she volunteered a damaging self-assessment: The FBI had driven her "crazy."

Credibility in Doubt

To lawyers on both sides in the espionage retrial of former FBI Agent Richard W. Miller, the question that overshadowed both the dramatic new version she told about Miller last week and the stories she told before was whether an American jury would believe anything she said.

Ogorodnikova, who pleaded guilty last year to "unlawfully" conspiring with Miller to pass secret documents to the Soviet Union, now claims that she was not a Soviet agent and that Miller never intended to betray his country.

On the witness stand last week, Ogorodnikova portrayed herself as a victimized "martyr" who was exploited by the FBI. This week, she will finish her story for the jury, and the prosecution will present its own perspective as it cross-examines her.

Ogorodnikova's claims of Miller's innocence were first made last week in private to the judge and lawyers, then disclosed to the public on Friday. The jury itself will not hear Ogorodnikova's full story until the resumption of her testimony.

If the jury believes Ogorodnikova's testimony, Miller's chances of being acquitted as the first FBI agent ever charged with espionage are greatly increased. But lawyers on both sides view her credibility problem with the jury as serious.

Ogorodnikova, 35, barely five feet tall, seemed a tiny figure in the courtroom as she testified last week between secret meetings with U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon and her lawyers about her decision to recant a confession that led Kenyon to sentence her to 18 years in prison last June.

A woman with plain features whose appearance changes dramatically depending on the clothes and makeup she wears, Ogorodnikova wore her hair short and dressed in the same simple khaki pants outfit throughout her testimony last week.

Sometimes appearing close to tears, sighing sadly one minute and smiling the next, the blonde, blue-eyed Russian immigrant presented an image of vulnerability as she also lived up to her reputation for dramatic flair, triggering almost instant chaos in the courtroom.

As a result of the behind-the-scenes action in her first four days as a witness, Ogorodnikova's own lawyers were almost taken off the case, one of Miller's lawyers, Stanley Greenberg, was suddenly threatened with a jail term for contempt of court, and Kenyon was kept busy scurrying through his lawbooks trying to maintain order in the trial.

Overflow Crowd at Trial

A courtroom that had been virtually deserted since the start of the Miller retrial in February--his first trial ended in a deadlocked jury last November--was suddenly packed with an overflow crowd.

"I feel sorry for her," one courtroom spectator said. "I think she's telling the truth. But I don't know if the jury will believe her."

Before Ogorodnikova took the stand, the prosecution tried to block her from testifying, saying that her testimony was irrelevant and would "confuse and mislead the jury." Kenyon decided to grant her immunity to testify in the "interest of justice," saying that the trial was a search for truth and that her testimony should be heard.

Ogorodnikova's impact on the jury as she told the first portions of her testimony remained a mystery. Most jurors showed little emotion as they listened, and some avoided looking directly at her. There was no visible trace of sympathy, but there was one sign of disbelief by one juror who rolled her eyes skeptically as the Russian emigre testified.

Ogorodnikova herself told Kenyon she doubted that the jury or anyone else would believe her story that neither she nor Miller had any intentions to hurt the United States, but were actually working together for the FBI in an effort directed against the Soviet Union.

'My Life Is Finished'

"My life is finished," she told Kenyon. "I am Russian. And the jury will never believe me, and that's the truth. . . . Nobody maybe would believe me."

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