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While Miami celebrated the Marlins on Monday, its federal prosecutors were dealing with a big-league defeat. A jury in District Court there announced that it was acquitting Michael Abbell, a D.C. criminal defender, on a major charge of racketeering. The feds said that Abbell had become part of the criminal empire of his clients, the bosses of Colombia’s Cali cartel. A conviction on that charge would have put Abbell away for good.
But Abbell, a former Justice employee who once led the department’s effort to chase down drug barons abroad, is far from out of the woods. The seven-woman, five-man jury also deadlocked on four other major charges against him: racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to import cocaine, conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute it, and conspiracy to launder moneythree of which carry maximum life terms. On Wednesday, prosecutors announced that they would retry Abbell on all four charges. Following the announcement, Abbell told the Associated Press, “I will persevere. I have pled not guilty and I consider myself not guilty.”
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The feds may have some grounds for hope. The jury reportedly split heavily toward acquittal on the two cocaine charges but split somewhat toward conviction on the money-laundering and racketeering conspiracy charges. Abbell’s lawyers tried to send the jury back to keep slugging it out on the cocaine charges, but the judge nixed their effort.
Abbell, 57, a Harvard Law School graduate with a wife and three sons and a home in a cushy Bethesda neighborhood, got backs up among his former Justice colleagues when, in the mid-’80s, he went to work representing the bosses of Colombia’s Cali cartel. (See “Cocaine and Abbell,” 11/3/95.) His former co-workers didn’t much like the idea that Abbell was employing his extradition expertise in the defense of the very criminals he had once chased down.
In June 1995, the U.S. Attorney unsealed a massive indictment that accused him and several other lawyers of becoming criminals in the process of representing them. The 161-page indictment charged that Abbell had faked affidavits, laundered money for the Cali bosses, and paid off a jailed cartel member to keep him from cooperating with the government. Abbell had become, the feds said, essentially a member of an international criminal syndicate accused of having smuggled more than 200 tons of cocaine into the United States over the preceding decade.
The indictment outraged defense lawyers. “This case was a show trial,” says William Moffitt of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). “The government hoped to cow the [defense] bar. To bring it to heel. Obviously, in this particular case they didn’t succeed.”
The U.S. Attorney has said that Abbell and the other lawyersone of whom, William Moran, was tried with Abbellstrayed far beyond the bounds of legality in representing their clients. “This is not a case of lawyers falling into ethical gray areas,” Kendall Coffey, the U.S. Attorney in Miami, declared at the time. “It would be criminal if a truck driver had done these things.” (Coffey himself has since learned a bit more about not-so-gray areas, getting the ax after he bit a go-go dancer on the arm in public.)
The jury may have had problems with some of the witnesses the feds put on the stand: three lawyers who pleaded guilty to lesser charges and then testified against Abbell.
Jack King, a spokesman for NACDL, says the government’s evidence was weak. “[The feds] had a massive failure of proof. They failed to prove that ordinary activities of a criminal defense lawyer were actually criminal acts, or designed to further a criminal conspiracy,” he says.
Marvin Loewy, who was deputy chief of the organized crime and racketeering section at Justice while Abbell was there and has been monitoring the case on the Miami Herald’s web site, agreed. “I just never heard any great pieces of evidence against either lawyer,” he says.
Ed Ryan, an assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case in Miami, declined comment, as did John Russell, a spokesman for the Justice Department. Abbell’s lawyers did not return calls.Meredith K. Wadman