Topics: Appellate Review

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UNITED STATES v. NORIEGA, 117 F.3d 1206 (1997)

In 1988, a federal grand jury for the Southern District of Florida indicted Manuel Antonio Noriega on drug-related charges. Noriega served as commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces in the Republic of Panama. Noriega was brought to Miami to face the pending federal charges.

Following a lengthy trial, a jury found Noriega guilty of eight counts in the indictment. He was sentenced to consecutive imprisonment terms of 20, 15 and five years, respectively....

[Before trial,] Noriega gave notice of his intent to use classified information regarding his intelligence work for the United States to rebut the government's assertion that he had unexplained wealth. The government objected to any disclosure of the purposes for which the United States had paid Noriega. In pre-trial proceedings, the government offered to stipulate that Noriega had received approximately $320,000 from the United States Army and the Central Intelligence Agency. Noriega insisted that the actual figure approached $10,000,000, and that he should be allowed to disclose the tasks he had performed for the United States.

The district court held that information about the content of the discrete operations in which Noriega had engaged in exchange for the alleged payments was irrelevant to his defense. Alternatively, it ruled that the tendency of such evidence to confuse the issues before the jury substantially outweighed any probative value it might have had. The district court's...ruling, however, left Noriega free to present evidence of the fact, amounts, time, source and method of conveyance of money he alleged he had received from the United States. At trial, Noriega declined to submit evidence regarding monies he allegedly received from the United States, because, he now contends, it would not have appeared credible to the jury absent the excluded details regarding the actual services he had performed.

Our review leads us to conclude that information regarding the purposes for which the United States previously paid Noriega potentially had some probative value. Specifically, had Noriega testified that he had received $10,000,000 from the United States, and had the government then rebutted that testimony by presenting evidence that it had paid Noriega $320,000, evidence regarding what Noriega did for the United States might have helped the jury determine which of the two payment totals was more credible. To the extent that the proffered evidence on the intelligence operations showed that the United States had engaged Noriega to carry out significant duties, the jury might have inferred that he had received the higher figure, rather than the lower sum. Thus, the district court may have overstated the case when it declared evidence of the purposes for which the United States allegedly paid Noriega wholly irrelevant to his defense.

The potential probative value of this material, however, was relatively marginal. Evidence of the purposes for which monies allegedly are given does not aid significantly in the determination of the fact and amount of such purported payments. Further, and more importantly, the district court correctly recognized that the admission of evidence regarding the nature of Noriega's assistance to the United States would have shifted unduly the focus of the trial from allegations of drug trafficking to matters of geo-political intrigue. Accordingly, we cannot conclude that the district court abused its discretion when it determined that the probative value of the proffered material was outweighed substantially by the confusion of issues its admission would have caused. See Fed.R. Evid. 403.

...Noriega's convictions are AFFIRMED.

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