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Lawyers acquitted of aiding Cali cartel

A federal court jury sent the government away empty-handed Monday in its attempt to convict two lawyers of committing crimes for Colombia's Cali cocaine cartel.

The jury acquitted the lawyers of racketeering charges accusing them of crossing the line and taking part in the drug trade. Jurors deadlocked on four other drug-related charges.

The case was closely watched in legal circles because of the government's bold strategy of charging lawyers with the same crimes as their clients.

Prosecutors charged that the cartel employed a network of lawyers to keep abreast of the latest legal developments in the United States, defend smugglers caught in this country and take an undercover criminal role.

Michael Abbell, a former Justice Department extradition expert who lives in Bethesda, Md., and William Moran of Miami had been charged with funneling hush money to defendants, relaying threats from the cartel chiefs and preparing false affidavits to exonerate the Colombian bosses of the cartel.

The complex trial resulted from an investigation known as Operation Cornerstone, which federal officials said uncovered shipments of cocaine into the United States hidden in everything from fence posts to coffee and frozen broccoli.

The reputed Cali cartel chiefs, brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, are in prison in Colombia. Their drug business splintered after U.S. agents began dismantling smuggling pipelines in the early 1990s. Rival Colombian gangs and Mexicans now dominate the cocaine trade.

Jurors heard five months of daunting testimony painting an intricate picture of an organization accused of smuggling 200 tons of cocaine into this country over the last decade. Their verdict came after 10 days of deliberations over three weeks. The charges carried sentences of 10 years to life.

Abbell, who served 17 years with the Justice Department, was head of the criminal division's international affairs office, which handles extraditions from foreign countries, before he left in 1984.

Prosecutors charged that Abbell's expertise was crucial in influencing Colombian lawmakers to shield drug lords from extradition. His lawyers tried to show that he was doing legitimate legal work.

Moran testified he never conspired to smuggle drugs.

Bill Genego, a former law professor from Santa Monica, Calif., who is an official with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the verdict shows the government's strategy may have been too ambitious.

"I think it was a case of overcharging by the government, and they may have paid the consequences," he said. "This is certainly not a victory for the government. But I don't know that it's a clear defeat. Their ability to go back and retry the case is disturbing."

U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins instructed lawyers on both sides not to talk about the case because jurors were to come back Wednesday for "unfinished business," likely related to the conviction of two non-lawyer defendants. Two other non-lawyer defendants were acquitted.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Ryan refused to discuss the verdict or whether the government would retry the case.

Attorneys for Abbell said they could not talk about the case and Albert Krieger, an attorney for Moran, said he wouldn't react to the case, but added: "I assume there will be a retrial."

_ Information from the Sun-Sentinel was used in this report.