MIAMI, NOV. 13 -- While defense lawyers for Manuel Antonio Noriega prepared for a Supreme Court showdown with Cable News Network, legal jockeying in the case returned today to a more basic matter: assuring that the defense is paid.
U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler said he will give the defense team until Friday to resolve the problem. Otherwise, he said, he will declare the deposed Panamanian leader indigent and appoint two government-paid lawyers to handle the defense.
Hoeveler had ordered the federal government last June to help lift a freeze on $6 million in deposits by Noriega in 27 accounts in foreign banks. The money, he said, should be used to help pay for Noriega's defense in his drug-trafficking case.
Defense lawyers returned to court today to say they have not received a dime. "After how many months?" Hoeveler asked. "We're nowhere. It is obvious that we may not be able to secure any money."
Hoeveler said he is prepared to go ahead with government-paid lawyers representing Noriega because the longer the case lags, the more easily it could be derailed before trial.
He referred specifically to legal complications that arose last week when CNN broadcast excerpts of a taped jail-house conversation between Noriega and a member of his defense team. The network defied Hoeveler's order not to broadcast the excerpt and, when his order was upheld on appeal, announced that it would appeal to the Supreme Court this week.
"The need for this case to go to trial has never been made more clear than in the last few days," Hoeveler said. "As long as this case lingers, we face the prospect of new issues causing more delays." Noriega has been jailed since January.
Hoeveler conceded that the current trial date of Jan. 28 is not realistic but added that he will not delay the trial much beyond then.
Hoeveler also denied a request that a special prosecutor be appointed to determine how the government's tape recordings of Noriega's prison conversations got into CNN's hands.
Justice Department lawyer Drew Arena said today that authorities in France, Austria and Switzerland froze Noriega's accounts on their own, based on allegations that the money was drug profits. He suggested that, in this light, it would be difficult for the United States to suggest that they release the funds.
Frank Rubino, Noriega's chief lawyer, said the State Department tried to sabotage release of the money by encouraging foreign governments to freeze the money on their own.