In a resounding defeat for government prosecutors, a federal jury in Reno took only six hours Tuesday to acquit prominent criminal defense attorney Patrick Hallinan of helping a former client operate a major marijuana smuggling ring.
Prosecutors had hoped to show that Hallinan, one of San Francisco's leading legal figures, had crossed the line from advocate to criminal during the years he represented the kingpin of a $140-million West Coast smuggling operation.
Instead, the verdict, reached quickly after a trial of nearly six weeks, seemed to repudiate a government campaign that defense lawyers argued was intended to discourage zealous representation of accused criminals.
To obtain his testimony against Hallinan, prosecutors gave the chief smuggler a generous plea-bargain deal that has allowed him to live in his luxurious home near Lake Tahoe, keep millions of dollars of assets and travel freely. He has yet to be sentenced.
Hallinan, 60, and his lawyer, former Iran-Contra prosecutor John Keker, embraced when the verdict was announced, and Hallinan's wife, Lauren, jumped from her seat and ran to hug her husband.
"This is not the appropriate time to express the deep upset I feel about what was done to a free and independent bar," Hallinan said after the verdict. "Give me a day to get over the joy and elation and get down to the issues."
Hallinan's prosecution drew widespread ire from criminal defense lawyers, who saw the case as a government attempt to intimidate the criminal bar by targeting one of its most effective practitioners.
Some defense lawyers even accused the prosecutor in the case of abusing his office by charging Hallinan based on evidence obtained from smugglers who testified in hopes of reducing their own sentences.
"There are lawyers who are criminals," said John Mendez, the former chief federal prosecutor in San Francisco under President George Bush, "the people who sell dope, steal money and get involved in deals. That is not Hallinan."
Mendez said the Reno prosecutor who brought the case, Assistant U.S. Atty. L. Anthony White, is a "zealot" who failed to learn about Hallinan's reputation before bringing the indictment.
Hallinan is respected by both defense lawyers and prosecutors in San Francisco. He is the eldest son of the late Vincent Hallinan, a famed trial lawyer and onetime Progressive Party presidential candidate whose espousal of liberal causes frequently provoked reprisals by the federal government during his lifetime.
The prosecutor "should have done some background into Pat Hallinan, what type of person he is," Mendez said.
"He would have found out that he is basically a very aggressive, strong advocate who believes very very strongly in the maxim that every person is entitled to an attorney," Mendez said. "He will push and push and push, but Pat has never been one to cross the line."
Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Barry Tarlow called Hallinan's prosecution "an absolute disgrace."
"This sends a loud and clear message to the Justice Department that loose cannons like Mr. White ought not to be doing the people's business," Tarlow said. "It was clearly part of the war on the defense bar, and this is certainly Mr. White's Waterloo."
White appeared stone-faced after the verdict was announced. "All we wanted was an opportunity to present this case to a Nevada jury," he said. "I can live with the decision."
The prosecution was troubled nearly from the beginning by basing its case largely on the testimony of smugglers who had an incentive to implicate Hallinan in their crimes.
Ciro Mancuso, Hallinan's former client, decided to testify against Hallinan after the attorney negotiated a plea bargain for him in 1990. By providing the government with evidence against his former lawyer, Mancuso earned himself a better deal.
Mancuso and his associates testified that Hallinan coached them to lie, helped launder illegal drug money and arranged for one defendant to become a fugitive. Hallinan was also charged with lying to a federal magistrate, a felony, because of statements he made during a 1989 bail hearing for his former client.
During the middle of the trial, prosecutors reportedly agreed to drop charges against Hallinan in exchange for a plea of no contest to a money laundering charge and no prison time. Hallinan, facing more than a dozen counts at the time, agreed, but Justice Department officials in Washington balked, and the trial proceeded.
Even though Hallinan was acquitted, his ordeal cost him hefty legal fees and possibly his reputation.
"I think defense lawyers feel vulnerable," said Harold Rosenthal, a San Francisco defense lawyer who analyzed the Hallinan trial for a computer network. "Just the mere fact he got prosecuted makes people feel vulnerable."
Associated Press contributed to this story.