MIAMI — When Manuel A. Noriega goes on trial here this summer, the most crucial witness against him is expected to be his former top military aide, Lt. Col. Luis del Cid. It didn't happen easily.
The path to the plea bargain that resulted in Del Cid's acknowledgement of guilt and his agreement to testify about the drug trafficking of his former commander in chief was a long and tortuous one.
Del Cid's testimony will be even more important to the government because two of Noriega's co-defendants who presently are on trial--Brian Davidow and William Saldarriaga--were not close enough associates to provide much first-hand testimony against Noriega, according to sources familiar with the government's case.
Del Cid surrendered 14 months ago along with the troops he commanded in Chiriqui province after the United States invaded Panama. He faced a host of serious charges when he was locked up in a Miami jail cell in January, 1990.
Indicted with the former Panamanian dictator by a federal grand jury here in 1988, Del Cid was charged with five separate counts of drug-smuggling, racketeering and conspiracy on grounds that he was a go-between and bagman for Noriega. In addition, U.S. prosecutors claimed he had helped direct the brutal murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, a political foe of Noriega, and that he was chief of Noriega's G-2 intelligence operation.
Sam Burstyn, his defense attorney, says he wondered at the time how such a man could ever hope to get a satisfactory deal. But he was determined to try.
A reconstruction of the Del Cid plea-bargain process by Burstyn and other sources close to the case shows how it resulted from the patience of both sides, strategic moves by the defendant's lawyer, a guarantee that the defendant would never be deported and the government's willingness to back away from some of its misconceptions about Del Cid.
Burstyn, a veteran Miami defense lawyer specializing in narcotics, government corruption and financial fraud prosecutions, said the more he did his early homework, the more he concluded that the allegations against Del Cid were exaggerated. First, it was another man named Del Cid who was involved in the Spadafora murder, he said, and there was no evidence Del Cid ever had directed Noriega's intelligence operation.
"But I was pleased to find these misconceptions by the government," he said, "because eventually they work to the advantage of a defense lawyer."
U.S. Atty. Dexter Lehtinen recently declined to discuss his own view of the yearlong bargaining process, a settlement that may prove crucial to the conviction of Noriega. Del Cid will remain in the same federal prison here as Noriega, but he will be isolated from the former dictator until called on to testify in a trial scheduled to begin June 24.
Lehtinen would only say that last December's plea agreement "serves the public interest in two ways: It establishes a conviction, and it strengthens the government's case."
An assistant to Lehtinen confirmed that plea negotiations occurred substantially along the lines outlined by Burstyn. The starting point, the aide said, was that "Burstyn indicated a willingness on the part of his client to plead guilty."
Burstyn recalled that "in the two or three days before I first met with Lehtinen to discuss a plea agreement, Lehtinen was on local television talking about the military invasion of Panama and how a generation of children were almost ruined by the assistance that Noriega and his associates had given to the Colombian drug cartel."
As with any plea negotiations, such "a hardening attitude," as Burstyn called it, resulted in an initial offer to Del Cid that was "none too generous."
"Lehtinen wanted Del Cid to plead guilty to two felony counts with a total exposure of 40 years in prison," the attorney said. "For Del Cid's benefit, that was not acceptable. I decided I had to be patient."
Burstyn got an opportunity to win some points at a hearing before U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler about 10 days later. The newly appointed prosecution team was still learning the case because key government lawyers who had obtained the original indictment against Noriega and his associates had left the scene after Lehtinen's appointment several months earlier.
Lacking sufficient knowledge about Del Cid's background, associate prosecutor Myles Malman, who had the case suddenly thrust upon him, told Hoeveler that Del Cid was an important defendant because he had held the high post of chief of intelligence under Noriega. When Burstyn flatly denied that accusation and Malman was unable to offer any proof, there was an embarrassed pause. The government was shown to have a faulty grasp of its case.
When the prosecution further suggested that Del Cid was implicated in Spadafora's murder, Burstyn insisted the charge was false and further challenged the assertion as irrelevant even if true.