MIAMI, NOV. 26 -- U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler broadened the constitutional issues in the CNN-Manuel Noriega tapes case today, saying basic fairness could allow him to block broadcast of the defendant's prison telephone conversations.
Hoeveler cited fairness again in warning prosecutors to persuade foreign governments to free $20 million in frozen Noriega-linked bank accounts to pay defense lawyers or appear before him for a hearing aimed at proving that the money was drug-tainted.
"I am deeply concerned about the image that this case seems to be acquiring -- that the defendant is not going to be able to get a fair trial," Hoeveler said. "There's an obvious need by all of us in a case like this to show that our system, in fact, does work from top to bottom."
On the tapes issue, Hoeveler said transcripts of tapes handed over by Cable News Network last week were expected to be completed by late today and to be discussed by all sides in a closed hearing Wednesday morning.
Hoeveler said he would rule by Thursday on whether to maintain his order preventing CNN from broadcasting the tapes of calls made by the deposed Panamanian leader from prison outside Miami.
Hoeveler emphasized that he would review all of CNN's tapes, not just those between Noriega and his defense team. He said an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion upholding his original gag order allowed him to consider "broader questions" than attorney-client privilege.
CNN attorney Terry Bienstock protested, saying the issue should not include matters such as pretrial publicity because the defense had not asked for such a ruling. Outside the court, he said he was alarmed by Hoeveler's comments.
"It's bad enough that the court's engaging in this process of pre-publication review," he said. "But it's more disturbing that the court is going broader than even the litigants are seeking."
Noriega's lawyers were pleased with the handling of the tapes, however.
"How the devil can he ever receive a fair trial . . . if CNN's going to play his innermost, private discussions with his lawyers planning his defense strategy?" said Frank Rubino, Noriega's lead lawyer.
Hoeveler also said he would postpone appointing government-paid lawyers to replace Rubino's defense team to give the government another chance to free Noriega's foreign bank accounts.
Prosecutors agreed in June to free the money but later said foreign governments had filed their own confiscation orders against the 27 accounts.