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Did Kingpins Get Help From US Lawyer Friends?

Miami trial that explores the bounds of lawyer-client ties set to go to jury today.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 1997


In the 1990s, a secret protection racket operated in certain American courtrooms to shield drug kingpins in Colombia from ever facing trial in the United States. The racket was run by sympathetic American lawyers.

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That is the charge being made by federal prosecutors in Miami, where two prominent lawyers - including a former Justice Department official - are on trial, accused of using their legal skills to help perpetuate a code of silence enforced by the richest, most-powerful narcotraffickers in the world.

The case is being closely watched, because it raises questions about how far lawyers should go in representing their clients. It highlights the tension between an accused criminal's constitutional right to an effective lawyer versus lawyers becoming part of the criminal organizations they represent.

Under the drug-cartel protection scheme, prosecutors say, US lawyers friendly with drug bosses in Cali, Colombia, helped pass "hush" money to arrested drug smugglers. The lawyers also allegedly collected false affidavits from the smugglers declaring they did not know or conspire with the kingpins, Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela and his brother, Gilberto.

The brothers' organization allegedly smuggled more than 200 tons of cocaine into the US during the last decade, concealing the white powder in shipments of lumber, concrete posts, coffee, and frozen broccoli.

And if money wasn't enough to buy the silence of arrested smugglers, some of the US lawyers relayed death threats from the drug bosses, prosecutors charge.

In one case, a lawyer even confirmed the identity of a confidential informant who was then assassinated by the cartel, according to trial witnesses and court documents.

Four lawyers have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing in the case.

The two lawyers on trial, Michael Abbell of Washington, D.C., and William Moran of Miami, maintain that they were merely working as aggressive legal counsel for their clients and did nothing illegal.

"Michael Abbell protected the rights of his client, and he's not ashamed of it ... just because the client happens to be the world's worst criminal," said Howard Srebnick, Mr. Abbell's attorney, in his closing argument.

Jury deliberations in the five-month trial are expected to begin Oct. 1.

Attack on the Constitution?

Some criminal-defense lawyers say the case marks a major erosion of constitutional safeguards mandating effective assistance of counsel. They see it as the Justice Department's most recent attack on lawyers who have at times frustrated the US war on drugs.

"The message is: We don't like big drug dealers defended too vigorously, so watch your step we're going to look at you," says Gerald Lefcourt, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Other defense lawyers say Mr. Moran and Abbell appear to have crossed the line from acting as aggressive legal advocates to acting as members of the smuggling organization.

Prosecutors have charged the lawyers, under federal racketeering laws, with having become the equivalent of drug traffickers. If convicted, both lawyers could face life in prison.