Iran-Contra Judge Doubts Conspiracy Cases Are Fair
The judge in the Iran-Contra case questioned Thursday whether congressional immunity given to Oliver L. North and two co-defendants would make it a “practical impossibility” to try them on conspiracy charges.
The limited immunity granted North, a fired National Security Council aide and retired Marine lieutenant colonel; former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and arms dealer Albert A. Hakim might interfere with their getting a fair trial on the most serious charges in the case, U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell said at a hearing.
The judge also criticized the way the House and Senate Iran-Contra committees questioned witnesses last year, suggesting the defendants had not been treated decently by congressmen who prefaced questions with highly political remarks.
No Ruling on Immunity
Gesell, however, made no ruling on the immunity issue, saying he hoped to make a decision by the end of June on defense motions to dismiss the indictment.
If any of the three defendants testifies, his co-defendants are entitled to use their immunized congressional testimony during cross-examination, the judge said.
In addition, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, who testified on Capitol Hill without immunity, has indicated he wants to use the congressional testimony of North and Poindexter to help his defense in the case, Gesell said.
“As I see it, it is a practical impossibility to try the conspiracy counts in the context” of rules on immunity, he said. “If you try them together, you violate the immunities.”
By the same token, Gesell added, trying the defendants separately “makes a conspiracy trial a farce. None gets the benefit of the other’s testimony.”
The judge said he did not want to conduct four separate trials under a procedure sought by the defense. “Four individual trials is ridiculous,” he said.
Under the law, independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh is prohibited from using the immunized testimony of any of the three defendants as evidence against them.
Herbert J. Stern, a former federal judge representing Walsh, said the immunity grants will not prevent a fair trial.
If Secord wants to question North about his congressional testimony, “all Gen. Secord has to do is ask Col. North for the same facts, and out it comes,” Stern said.
The four defendants are charged with conspiring to corrupt the sale of U.S. arms to Iran by diverting profits to the Contras in Nicaragua during a time when Congress had banned U.S. military aid to them.
The four also are charged with theft of government property and wire fraud in connection with the alleged diversion.
In addition, North and Poindexter are charged with making false statements and obstructing investigations by Congress and Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III into covert assistance given the Contras.