North Judge Has Reputation for Sternness

Times Staff Writer

The judge in the Iran-Contra case may choose to sentence Oliver L. North to time in prison on three Iran-Contra felony counts even though North has an otherwise spotless background and the bulk of the charges against him were rejected by jurors, criminal law experts familiar with the judge’s record said Friday.

The experts said U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, who presided at North’s trial with a firm hand, has shown a propensity for tough sentences in white-collar crime cases, making a sentence of only probation unlikely.

“I don’t think he would regard these (charges) as minor infractions,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former associate Watergate prosecutor. “ . . . I would not be surprised if Gesell sentences him to some time in prison.”


A former U.S. attorney who declined to be identified by name said he knows Gesell well “and it’s hard for me to believe he’s not going to put North in jail.”

Gesell has announced that he will pronounce sentence on June 23. North was convicted Thursday by a federal court jury of altering and destroying top-secret documents, helping to obstruct an inquiry by Congress and illegally accepting the gift of a $13,800-home security system. The charges carry a maximum total penalty of 10 years in prison and fines of $750,000.

The former White House aide was acquitted on nine other charges after 12 days of jury deliberations following the eight-week trial. He has announced his intention to appeal.

At the White House, Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said President Bush has engaged in “no discussion of a pardon (for North) whatsoever.”

‘Haven’t Discussed It’

Fitzwater said Bush told him on Thursday that “I haven’t discussed it with anybody.” The spokesman declined to comment further or to speculate on the issue.

Among the legal experts interviewed, several noted that North’s exemplary background as an ex-Marine and decorated Vietnam War veteran will weigh in his favor at sentencing. The jury’s apparent conclusion that some of his controversial activities were approved or even directed by his White House superiors may also help.


Former District of Columbia U.S. Atty. Joseph DiGenova, who prosecuted many corruption cases in the nation’s capital, pointed to “different nuances” in North’s case, including the fact that jurors refused to convict him “on the overwhelming number of counts against him.”

Those factors could lead toward a sentence of community service work, he said, but noted that Gesell, a veteran of some Watergate trials, rarely shows leniency in white-collar crime, perjury and political corruption cases.

Fifteen years ago, Gesell sentenced another ex-White House aide with no criminal background, Dwight Chapin, to serve 10 months in prison for Watergate crimes, and told him: “(You) apparently chose loyalty to your superiors above your obligations as a citizen and a public servant.”

John F. Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University who is a specialist in the independent counsel statute under which North was tried, predicted that North might get a sentence of 12 months to 18 months and become eligible for parole after serving a third of that time.

Gesell “is not one to shy away from tough sentences . . . especially in view of the enormity of what North did, the cost to the public treasury to try him and as a means of deterring this kind of conduct in the future,” Banzhaf said in an interview.

The former U.S. attorney who asked to remain anonymous said that throughout the trial, “the judge’s whole attitude has been one to treat the Iran-Contra case very seriously. The charges are serious, including obstruction of Congress, and Judge Gesell doesn’t like lying by government officials.”


Cites Judge’s Warning

Ben-Veniste, also predicting some prison sentence, cited the stern admonition Gesell gave the jury before its deliberations. “The judge gave jurors instructions on the law that illegal orders could not be used as a defense,” he said. “ . . . The judge’s attitude toward this case was no doubt reflected in these instructions.”

Some legal experts said that, nevertheless, they expect North’s background and the jury’s sympathy to his defense to sway the judge.

“There is a very real chance he will not be sentenced to prison,” said John M. Bray, a defense lawyer and former government attorney.

Gesell “might decide to impose probation with community service while condemning North’s conduct,” Bray said.

Prominent Washington defense attorney Plato Cacheris also said he thinks the judge “may treat North sympathetically, reasoning that the jury’s verdict was a rejection of principal parts of the government’s case.”

New Document Made Public

In a related development in the Iran-Contra case Friday, a new document made public from the North trial showed that U.S. officials knew for several months before North was fired in November, 1986, that North and an associate, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, were charging exorbitant prices for arms sold to Iran.


The document was a government stipulation of facts based on top-secret electronic intercepts by the National Security Agency of overseas communications and conversations related to the sale of U.S. weapons to Iran. Given previously to North’s jury, the document was made public in censored form as a result of a lawsuit filed by The Times and nine other press organizations. The document added little to previous public disclosures about the affair.

Staff writers James Gerstenzang and Doyle McManus contributed to this story.