MIAMI (AP) — Two Colombians who were facing the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking will go home much sooner after prosecutors were accused of withholding evidence about payments by the Drug Enforcement Administration to police in the South American country.
John Finkelstein Winer and Jose Salazar Buitrago both pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport cocaine and received sentences of 36 months, with credit for the nearly two years they have already been in custody.
The hastily arranged plea deal and sentences before a federal judge in Florida on May 23 was a rare defeat of sorts in a drug case for the U.S. government, which has been working with Colombia to extradite hundreds of people suspected of trafficking in recent years and routinely sentences them to lengthy prison terms.
"For us it was really an outstanding outcome considering all the circumstances," said Jose Quinon, the veteran Miami criminal defense lawyer who represented Finkelstein, a 57-year-old native of Bogota.
The two defendants were accused of helping to obtain planes for Colombian drug traffickers to smuggle drugs through other countries, including Venezuela and Honduras, to the U.S. Both men insisted they were innocent and decided to take the case to trial, a risky move because defendants typically receive a longer sentence if they lose in court than in a plea bargain.
Finkelstein and Buitrago, 57, were arrested in September 2011 with 34 other men in a case heralded by the Department of Justice at the time as "Operation Seven Trumpets." At least nine have already pleaded guilty, according to court records.
Lawyers for Buitrago, who was represented by the office of the Federal Public Defender of the Southern District of Florida, asked prosecutors in April to turn over records of any payments from the DEA to the officers who investigated their client in Colombia. Such information could have been used to challenge wiretaps or impeach witnesses in the case.
No records were turned over and the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Hoffman told the judge that there were no such payments. That was contradicted by the first witness, an officer from the Colombian police, as well as a DEA agent, who testified that Hoffman knew about the payments at least a day before the trial started.
The payments themselves, about $200 per month to at least 11 agents over about three years came from the huge U.S. aid package to fight drugs known as Plan Colombia. The judge said the prosecution was ethically and legally bound to turn the information over to the defense.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke denied the defense motion to dismiss the charges or declare a mistrial but was clearly angry at the prosecutor, saying she was "personally frustrated and disappointed" at Hoffman and did not believe the prosecutor's claims that she had not been aware of the payments at the start of the trial.
"I think the United States was aware that Colombian police officers, in the course and scope of their duties, received payment," she said at a May 22 hearing. "I think they were aware of it and for whatever reason, did not disclose that to defense counsel."
Prosecutors soon sought a quick end to the case. "The next day we had a deal on the table and we took it," Quinon said.
The lawyer said he didn't know why the government was so eager to close the case, without a presentencing report or any further delay.
Michelle Alvarez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Southern Florida, declined to comment. The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Public Defender's office also declined to comment. Quinon said Finkelstein, who assumed a long prison term would turn into a death sentence for someone his age, is eager to get back to his family.
"He gets to go home and he gets to go home in a few months and that is something that is very welcome for him."
Associated Press writer Curt Anderson contributed to this report.