IT'S BEEN more than a year now since Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega surrendered to American armed forces and was brought to Florida for trial on drug charges. The Constitution guarantees a speedy trial, but in Gen. Noriega's case, there has been a lot of pretrial wrangling that has delayed proceedings. This week two major areas of conflict were resolved, and Judge William Hoeveler set a trial date of June 24. These controversies were rather unusual, and it was important to work them through.
The first concerned the general's attempt to use his own money -- squirreled away in whopping accounts at various foreign banks -- to pay for his legal defense. The government had frozen all his assets and persuaded foreign governments to do the same. If Gen. Noriega is convicted, all assets that can be traced to his drug trafficking will be confiscated. But defense lawyers pointed out that he had been on the payroll of U.S. intelligence agencies for years and that at least some of his money -- they said $11 million -- had been earned legitimately and should be made available.
The judge ordered the government to produce the facts and to persuade some foreign governments to unfreeze accounts, and that's been done. It turns out that the U.S. government -- the Army and the CIA -- had paid the Panamanian only about $322,000 over a 31-year period. Nevertheless, the judge has allowed the parties to apply $1.6 million, which was released by an Austrian bank this week, to pay the defense lawyers for last year's work and expenses. From now on, they will continue to handle the case as court-appointed counsel at the rate of $75 an hour.
The second question to be resolved was whether the government had blown the case by taping Mr. Noriega's telephone calls from jail to his attorneys. After a hearing at which the prosecutors were put on the witness stand, the judge found Monday that dismissing the case was too strong a sanction for any harm that might have been done to the defense by the taping. He left the door open for further hearings if they become necessary later. All the prosecutors had sworn that they had neither listened to nor read transcripts of the attorney-client conversations.
It may all seem like a lot of money and nitpicking. But once the decision was made to bring Gen. Noriega here for trial, it became not only necessary but in the government's interest to see that he was treated fairly. In a criminal court in the United States, all the accused are entitled to the same protections.