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.
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.
"This is no high school debate. This is not some academic discussion. This is my life," Moran told the jury in his own closing argument. He said the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted with the necessary criminal intent to advance the cause of the cartel.
Both lawyers complain the government is relying on testimony by convicted drug traffickers and co-defendants. They say such people are apt to lie and frame innocent defendants to get reduced prison sentences.
From the government's perspective, Moran and Abbell made attractive targets.
In the early 1980s, Abbell headed the office in the Justice Department that spearheaded efforts to extradite Colombian drug traffickers to stand trial in the US. In 1985, Abbell switched sides in the fight.
After leaving the Justice Department, he became a legal adviser to the same cartel bosses he had earlier pursued, except now he was helping them avoid being extradited to the US.
Moran was an aggressive, high-profile defense lawyer who specialized in representing top-level drug traffickers.
Money bought silence
The protection scheme set up by the Colombian drug bosses was more subtle than just offering cash for silence, the prosecutors say.
Under the system, the cartel offered to pay all legal fees - as well as monthly sustenance payments to dependent family members - in exchange for a pledge that the accused smuggler would refuse to cooperate with law enforcement.
That meant arrested smugglers must take their chances at trial and, if necessary, endure decades in prison rather than attempt to plea bargain their way to reduced sentences.
The cartel's US-based lawyers, Moran and Abbell, helped hire attorneys for arrested smugglers, and channeled cartel money to pay legal fees and other costs, prosecutors say.
It remains unclear whether all the hired lawyers were aware that the payment of their fees was contingent on their clients' secret pledge not to agree to a plea bargain.
Such a fee arrangement would be clearly unethical had the hired lawyers known of it. But federal prosecutors are asking the jury to go beyond an ethical analysis to determine whether the actions of the two lawyers made them bona fide members of the cocaine trafficking group.
"The key to these cases is seeing which master is being served," says Mark Schnapp, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who specializes in criminal and white-collar cases.
Some lawyers are questioning how the alleged protection scheme could continue for so long without sparking an outcry.
They note that by all outward appearances arrested smugglers were represented by qualified lawyers, and some even won acquittals at trial. But the vast majority, unable to plea bargain, were quickly convicted and shipped off to prison to serve long sentences.
"How many judges have looked the other way when these attorneys were working for the cartel because we got due process in the pipeline?" asks a Miami defense lawyer who requested anonymity. "It was plain to every single person in the courthouse, and not a single defense attorney or judge spoke up against it," the lawyer says. "We are all guilty of allowing this to happen."