North Is Handed a Suspended Term and $150,000 Fine

Times Staff Writer

U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, declaring that Iran-Contra defendant Oliver L. North had worked “to carry out initiatives of a few cynical superiors,” fined the former White House aide $150,000 on Wednesday and did not order him to serve any time in jail.

Gesell, who is not known for light sentences, surprised the court with his decision, which requires North to report to a probation officer for two years of a suspended three-year prison term and to perform 1,200 hours of community service for a District of Columbia program designed to rescue inner-city youths from involvement with drugs.

“I want the community to get the benefit of your organizational and administrative skills, which are very high,” the white-haired Gesell told North, who stood before him ramrod-straight.

North was convicted on three federal charges of altering and destroying secret documents, helping to mislead Congress and illegally accepting the gift of a $13,800 home security system. The documents-destruction conviction disqualifies North from holding public office. Jurors cleared North of nine other charges May 4 after deliberating 12 days.


In a decision that disappointed prosecutors and gladdened North’s supporters, Gesell said that he believed prison time would only harden North’s misconceptions about the case.

“I believe you still lack full understanding of how the public service has been tarnished,” Gesell said at one point, in the manner of a professor lecturing a student. But, he added, “what you believe is your own business and jail would only harden your misconceptions.

“Along the way you came to accept . . . the mistaken view that Congress couldn’t be trusted and that the fate of the country was better left to a small inside group, not elected by the people, who were free to act as they chose,” Gesell said before a hushed courtroom filled to capacity.

During his two-month trial, North acknowledged that secretly he had run a resupply operation for Nicaragua’s Contra rebels financed by private funds after Congress had prohibited all U.S. funding for them.


North conceded that he had made mistakes but insisted that he had never meant to hurt his country. He said that he had lied to Congress about his activities because superiors including William J. Casey, the late CIA director, and two past national security advisers, Robert C. McFarlane and John M. Poindexter, had told him that no one--including members of Congress--were to learn of these activities.

North, 45, looked tense and grim as his defense attorney, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., began the court session with a 45-minute plea for leniency. The retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel faced a maximum possible punishment of 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

Earnest Plea

Sullivan, in his earnest plea to the judge, said that an American like North “who dedicated himself to the freedom of others” should not be deprived of his own freedom through incarceration.


“He fought for the freedom of the Vietnamese people as a Marine combat officer,” Sullivan told Gesell. “He tried to help the Nicaraguan freedom fighters and he worked to combat international terrorism from his White House office. We ask that he get full and fair consideration for all these actions.”

Sullivan cited “Col. North’s willingness to take on risky assignments throughout his career” and called him “the man most people would choose to be with in that one life-threatening time.”

Shortly after Sullivan finished speaking, North, his jaw clenched tightly, rose from the defense table to make his own brief remarks before sentencing. He denied the contentions of prosecutors that he lacked remorse, telling Gesell softly: “I grieve for what has happened and I truly do pray about it every day.”

He said that “this 2 1/2-year nightmare” of investigations by Congress and an independent counsel had disrupted his life and traumatized his family. He asked the judge to consider his nearly 20 years’ service in the Marine Corps, including combat duty in Vietnam, before he joined then-President Ronald Reagan’s White House staff in the early 1980s.


Barely Audible

In a barely audible voice choked with emotion, North said: “I have dedicated nearly two decades of service to my country. I would never knowingly do anything to hurt it or its institutions.

“I recognize that I have made many mistakes . . . I have lost the chance to ever again serve as a Marine.”

His conviction has cast some doubt on his military pension. The Navy Department announced that according to normal procedure in criminal cases, it is suspending payment of North’s $23,000-a-year Marine Corps pension pending a final decision on the matter by U.S. Comptroller General Charles Bowsher.


In scolding North before announcing terms of the sentence, the judge gave little hint that his sanctions would be “on the low side of what we expected,” as one North supporter put it.

Gesell, as a veteran of some Watergate trials in the 1970s, has a reputation for intolerance of governmental wrongdoing.

“You’re not the fall guy for this tragic breach of the public trust,” the judge said early in his lecture, adding: “I believe you knew this was morally wrong.”

The convictions resulted from “your own conduct” because “you destroyed evidence and altered and removed official documents . . . to keep Congress and others from finding out what was happening,” the judge said


Nonetheless, said Gesell: “I do not think you were a leader at all, but really a low-ranking subordinate working to carry out initiatives of a few cynical superiors.”

The judge also said that he considered “the important fact that before you came to the White House you had served your country with distinction in the highest traditions of the Marine Corps . . . .

“But I’m sure you realize that this case has little to do with your military behavior, commitment or expertise,” Gesell said, looking North squarely in the eye.

John D. Keker, the federal prosecutor and former Marine officer who tried North, told Gesell that the former National Security Council assistant deserved a jail term because he had refused to divulge his activities when first questioned about them three years ago and subsequently had sought to cover them up.


“We wish he had come forward in December, 1986, to tell us what he did, why he did it, who he did it with and who told him to do it,” Keker said. “We would have welcomed his cooperation.”

But North chose instead, he said, to “engage in cover-up activities, altering documents and destroying documents” and thus should be “surely and swiftly punished,” with a prison term.

Keker said, however, that the prosecution takes no joy in recommending a prison sentence for North. “This is not a happy moment for any of us,” he said.

But Gesell, after announcing the sentence, began to smile a little. North walked over to his wife Betsy in the front row of the courtroom, kissed her gently on the cheek and whispered in her ear. They both smiled for the first time.


Keker and two associate prosecutors, obviously disappointed, strode brusquely from the courthouse and drove away without responding to reporters’ questions. Later, their boss--independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh--issued a terse statement that said:

“Sentencing is uniquely a matter for the judgment of the trial judge. We had a full opportunity to present our views. We have no further comment.”

Neither North nor his attorney, Sullivan, had any comment after the sentencing, although they have said that they will appeal the conviction. North does not have to begin his community service work until all his legal appeals are exhausted.

Sullivan, North, his wife and a clergyman friend left by a side door and avoided dozens of cameramen and friendly demonstrators carrying signs reading “Pardon North.”


The demonstrators, mostly young people, had spent hours waiting outside in a light rain, often huddling under parkas and umbrellas. They carried signs urging a presidential pardon.

After the sentencing, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), the only member of Congress to attend the court session Wednesday, said that he and 57 Republican and Democratic colleagues had signed a letter to President Bush urging a pardon, although the letter had not been sent yet.

Facing a bank of microphones on the courthouse steps, Dornan called Gesell’s sentence “creative and thoughtful” and “on the low side of what we (supporters) expected.”

But “the harshest penalty,” Dornan said, was Gesell’s statement that North’s conviction will keep him from holding federal office. One of the charges on which North was convicted--destruction of documents--requires North to be “disqualified from holding any office under the United States,” Gesell said during the sentencing.


During the course of the nationally televised congressional hearings into Iran-Contra in 1987, North captured the imagination of the American public with his self-confident appeals to patriotism and traditional values. Both Reagan and then Vice President Bush referred to North as a national hero. Some of North’s friends have since urged him to run for Congress.

Dornan said that a presidential pardon would restore North’s ability to hold government office. At the White House, presidential Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said that Bush had no immediate comment on the sentencing in view of North’s legal appeal. “We haven’t discussed a pardon,” Fitzwater said.

In Los Angeles, Mark Weinberg, Reagan’s spokesman, said that the former President had no comment.

But Denise Anderson, forewoman of the jury that convicted North, hailed Gesell’s sentence. In an interview with CBS News, Anderson said: “Yes, I think it was a fair sentence. As a matter of fact, I’m so happy I can hardly talk. I’ve been praying for this.”


The North sentencing, originally scheduled for June 23, had been postponed because of controversy over one of the jurors, who defense attorneys claimed had not disclosed that a family member had been jailed for armed robbery. Gesell ruled last week that the omissions did not affect the validity of the verdict.

The incident was a reminder of the difficulties encountered last January in assembling jurors who were unfamiliar with North’s congressional testimony, which was given under a grant of immunity. Several jurors said after the trial that they had rejected most of the 12 charges against North on grounds that he was mainly following the orders of his superiors.

Adolfo Calero, a Contra leader, told Reuters news service he was pleased that North was not sentenced to prison and said that he believes the conviction will be overturned on appeal. “I am happy to see that justice was done in the sense he was not punished with prison time for his service to the Nicaraguan people and to the freedom and liberation of our country,” he said.

Other reaction to the sentence was generally positive but low-key. Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), who headed the 1987 House investigation of the Iran-Contra case, called Gesell’s sentence “good and wise” and added: “Judge Gesell balanced Col. North’s distinguished military record and his devotion to family with the fact the jury convicted him on three counts, against his difficult position with regard to his superiors.”


Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who chaired the Senate investigation, said that the sentence was “appropriate in light of the unique circumstances of this case.”

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) said: “I believe in the American system of justice, based on trial by jury. I respect the judge’s decision.”

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