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Court Denies Noriega New Trial


May 1996

Even if the jury had knowledge that a witness was bribed by the Cali cartel, it still would not have changed the outcome of the trial against deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, a federal judge ruled in denying him a new trial (U.S. v. Noriega, No. 88-0079-Cr.-Hoeveler, Order Denying Motion for New Trial, 59 CrL 1028 (DC SFla March 27, 1996); "Judge Finds Evidence 'Troubling,' But Denies New Trial to Noriega," BNA Criminal Practice Manual, vol. 10, no. 9, p. 174).

Judge William M. Hoeveler of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled that there was some evidence that Ricardo Bilonick had been bribed by the Cali cartel to testify against Noriega, but that the testimony of 47 other witnesses against the defendant ensured his conviction. Bilonick had been attacked on cross-examination at trial, the judge wrote in his opinion, and the new allegations would have been only one more reason for jurors not to believe his testimony.

Noriega's lawyers had argued that Bilonick had received a $1.25 million bribe from the Cali cartel to testify at trial (see "New Allegations of Bribery in Noriega Trial," NewsBriefs, April 1996). Two former Cali cartel members, whose identities remain secret, claimed that Bilonick was given $250,000 in cash and $1 million in certificates of deposit prior to surrendering to police. Bilonick was a former Panamanian diplomat and a member of the Medellin drug cartel. He received a three-year sentence for his role in drug smuggling and is now out of prison. He denies receiving any money in exchange for his testimony.

Noriega's lawyers argued that U.S. prosecutors secretly arranged for the Cali cartel bribe to get Bilonick to testify. In exchange for Bilonick's surrender and testimony, Noriega's lawyers say prosecutors arranged for a reduced sentence for Luis Santacruz Echeverri, the brother of slain Cali cartel leader Jose Santacruz Londono. This deal, and other special arrangements made for witnesses testifying against Noriega, should have been revealed to the jury at trial, they argued.

Noriega is now serving a 40-year sentence for drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering convictions. His lawyers say they will use the evidence of Cali cartel money in Noriega's pending appeal in the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.