Marcos Acquittal Yields Warning For Prosecutors in Noriega Case

Verdict raises doubts about cases involving crimes outside US. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT SETBACK

IMELDA MARCOS is happy. Adnan Khashoggi is happy. And, most likely, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega and his lawyers are happy. The verdict on July 2 that former Philippine First Lady Mrs. Marcos and Saudi financier Mr. Khashoggi are innocent of racketeering and fraud is likely to go beyond New York. The finding, criminal lawyers say, raises doubts about the practical ability of the Justice Department to successfully prosecute a case involving alledged crimes committed outside United States borders. Some of the Marcos jurors said after the verdict that they wondered why the case had been brought, because it mainly involved alleged crimes committed overseas.

Mrs. Marcos was charged with stealing more than $200 million from the Philippine government and investing it in real estate, jewels, and art in the US. Khashoggi was charged with helping to hide the crime.

``It was a lousy case. It stretched US law to its limits,'' says Joseph DiGenova, a former federal prosecutor. Mr. DiGenova, now a lawyer with Bishop, Cook, Purcell, and Reynolds, says the government case ``lost a lot of its punch'' when former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos died last September.

``The case has more practical implications than legal,'' says Bob Boehmer, an assistant professor of legal studies at the University of Georgia School of Business Administration. ``It gives the prosecution a sense of how hard it is to win this type of case, even if it has mounds of evidence and bad actors who don't attract a lot of sympathy.''

The acquittal also illustrates the importance of winning highly publicized cases, says Andreas Lowenfeld, a professor at the New York University Law School. ``You better be well prepared. ... I think the US will suffer greatly if Noriega is acquitted,'' he says.

Potentially, the government will face the same problems in the Noriega case, which involves drug charges. The evidence and testimony will come almost entirely from Panama. Although the courts have already ruled it is legal to press charges against Noriega, ``it is not a wise prosecution,'' contends Neal Sonnett, current president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a former lawyer for Noriega.

It is still too early to know the quality of the government's evidence against Noriega, who will be tried in Miami. No hearings are currently set, because the case is still the process of discovery and investigation. According to a government spokeswoman, the US is aiming for a trial date sometime in January 1991. She declined to comment about the Marcos case's effect on the Noriega trial.

It is expensive for the government to lose such cases. The Marcos case cost millions of dollars. According to Mr. Sonnett, a partner in the Miami law firm of Sonnett, Sale, Kuehne, the Noriega case is costing the government $20 million, not counting the invasion of Panama. The Justice Department does not reveal the costs of each prosecution.

The Marcos jurors complained about the credibility of prosecution witnesses, who often presented half truths that were uncovered during cross examination. The case involved hundreds of documents and hundreds of thousands of pages of testimony. Prosecutors sought to show that scribblings in ledgers tracked the movement of millions of dollars, used by Mrs. Marcos for her expensive shopping trips. ``In cases like this you have to wonder if juries will understand,'' DiGenova says. The Marcos jury clearly did not. Said one juror afterwards, ``There was nothing to convince any of us that there was a case.''

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