Oliver L. North's criminal trial opened today with the prosecutor calling him a liar who "places himself above the law" and with North's lawyer defending him as a patriotic Marine who obeyed the orders of the nation's highest officials.
Prosecutor John Keker told the jury that North had lied time and again to his President and to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair.
North's chief defense lawyer countered that the defendant, a former top National Security Council aide, worked in a secret world where "he always acted with the approval of his superiors; he acted always with the best interests of his country."
Thus the two sides squared off for the oft-delayed first trial to come out of the Iran-Contra affair, a trial that may take as long as five months to complete.
Nine women and three men chosen as jurors in the case were sworn in by U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell at 9:38 a.m.
North followed the opening statements of Keker and chief defense lawyer Brendan Sullivan with intense interest. He sat upright during both presentations, sometimes looking toward his wife, Betsy, who was in the front row of spectators.
North is charged with 12 criminal counts, nine of them having to do with deceiving Congress and President Ronald Reagan. The three others involve charges that he personally profited from the Iran-Contra affair.
A year after it passed the 1984 Boland Amendment banning U.S. military assistance to the Contras, Congress received news reports that North was secretly raising money for the rebels from foreign countries and private donors and providing tactical military advice.
At one point, Keker said, a House committee met with North in the White House seeking the truth about the situation.
"The committee looked Oliver North right in the eye and North looked them right in the eye and he lied," Keker said.
Sullivan countered that North never broke the law, that "he followed the instructions of the highest-ranking officials of the United States of America. . . . He followed his orders as any Marine Corps officer would."