John DeLorean Trial: 1984

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John DeLorean Trial: 1984

Defendant: John DeLorean
Crime Charged: Drug trafficking
Chief Defense Lawyers: Howard Weitzman, Donald Re
Chief Prosecutors: James P. Walsh Jr, Robert Parry
Judge: Robert Takasugi
Place: Los Angeles, California
Date of Trial: April 18-August 16, 1984
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: Dubious government witnesses and the ethics of "sting" operations in general were on trial as much as the defendant in this high-profile drug case.

In 1982 John DeLorean was popularly viewed as one of the auto industry's most charismatic figures. He was handsome and dashing, and the independent motor company that he had founded and which bore his name was lauded as a brave attempt to take on the Detroit "big guys." But on Wall Street it was a different story: whispers of DeLorean's financial difficulties were rampant, centered on the increasing problems at his Northern Ireland factory, and few expected the company to remain solvent for long. No one, though, was prepared for the stunning events of October 19.

That was the day when DeLorean was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with conspiracy to distribute $24 million worth of cocaine. Federal officials were cock-a-hoop, crowing that more than 100 hours of audio and video surveillance had culminated in the 57-year-old automaker being caught on tape accepting a coke delivery from undercover cops.

Top-Notch Lawyer

When the most eagerly awaited drug trial in years opened on April 18, 1984, the elegant defendant was represented by one of California's top litigators, Howard Weitzman, and nobody doubted that it would take all of Weitzman's formidable skill to save his client from prison. The prosecution had amassed a wealth of electronic evidence. The jurors heard how FBI agent Benedict Tisa, posing as James Benedict, a crooked banker, had met with DeLorean at a bank in San Carlos, California, on September 8, 1982. In their taped conversation he told DeLorean about a prospective investor who had "all these profits from his cocaine deals," to which DeLorean replied, "It looks like a good opportunity." On a later tape DeLorean was shown raising a glass of champagne and describing cocaine as "better than gold."

Tisa testified that he had heard from James Hoffman, a convicted drug smuggler and government informant, that DeLorean had $2 million "he wanted to invest in a narcotics transaction" that would turn a fast profit. The proposed deal was for DeLorean to invest $1.8 million with Hoffman to buy 34 kilos of coke that they hoped to sell for $5.1 million. Through other Hoffman connections, DeLorean then hoped to raise a $15 million loan routed through the San Carlos bank and parlay his money.

The defense tactics were unconventional. With such a high-profile client, Weitzman shrewdly opted for maximum publicity as a way of demonstrating that DeLorean had nothing to fear. At the end of each trial day, Weitzman held a well-attended press conference outside the federal courthouse. Not only did this allow him to cozy up to the media, it gave him the opportunity to present DeLorean's side of the argument on a day-to-day basis, without fear of cross-examination. In one tape, DeLorean could be heard telling Tisa that he no longer had the money to buy into the deal. Weitzman informed the reporters that this was DeLorean's way of telling Tisa to "get lost It's a clear indication that John doesn't want to participate in a narcotics transaction."

It wasn't all grand-standing for the cameras. Inside the courtroom Weitzman was giving Tisa a miserable time. After extracting an early confession from the witness that he had lied in telling another contact that he had already received money from DeLorean, Weitzman turned up the heat. He wanted clarification of Tisa's case notes, which appeared to show some inconsistencies. Finally, after three days of relentless questioning, Tisa admitted, "I may have rewrote the pages [sic]."

Weitzman, insistent that the only possible reason for such actions was to alter evidence, looked askance. "And you destroyed the original?"

"Yes, a portion of them," confessed the hapless Tisa.

Weitzman threw his hands up in disbelief. "How do we know what you changed, what you added, what you took out and what you threw away? How do we know that?"

It was a bravura performance, one which moved DeLorean to tell waiting reporters that night, "I only got one thing to say [sic], 'Thank God for Howard.'"

For his part, Weitzman admitted that the tapes showed his client discussing coke. "Clearly his judgment was not only poor, it was non-existent," he said, but added that DeLorean, vulnerable and desperate, had been coerced by government pressure.

Witness Sensation

When the informant, James Hoffman, took the stand he did so under a cloud. Tapes already played in court had showed him drinking profusely and making lewd comments about women, none of which did anything to shore up his shaky credibility, and it was widely felt that he would buckle under cross-examination. Despite this perception he managed to resist the best that Weitzman could throw at him.

Then came a sensational development: it emerged that Hoffman was trying to work a deal with the government. Judge Robert Takasugi exploded. Blasting the witness as a "hired gun," Takasugi found it to be "offensive" that the prosecution had failed to reveal sooner that Hoffman had "demanded" a share of any money seized in the case. Although said out of the jury's hearing, this revelation brought about a marked change of courtroom atmosphere.

Suddenly, the prosecution was on the back foot, so much so that Weitzman felt no compunction to call DeLorean to the stand, saying, "We don't believe he [has] anything to defend The burden is on the Government to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. I don't think they've done that."

In his closing address, chief prosecutor James P. Walsh, Jr. describing DeLorean as "a man with the conscience of a tomcat," someone prepared to do anything to save his ailing auto company, struggled hard to regain the initiative. But the impetus had been lost and he could only sit and muse reflectively as the defense took control.

Throughout the trial Weitzman had varied his pose, at times friendly and almost folksy, at others bitingly sarcastic; but in closing he was at his most aggressive. He likened the case to the George Orwell novel 1984, in which "the whole premise is that the government rewrites history, the government controls people, the government stifles people." Even though the United States government knew that DeLorean was in deep trouble, said Weitzman, it went after him anyway." Somebody should have said, 'Step back here, this is wrong,' "but no, federal officials had approached his client "and promised to save his dream, and there's something wrong with that."

Weitzman piled on the agony. By putting the government on trial, blaming it for his client's transgressions, he clearly struck a chord with the jury, for on August 16, after 29 hours of deliberation, they acquitted DeLorean of all charges.

Talking afterwards, jury members said that they felt the defendant had been entrapped, and that he would not have tried to engage in criminal practices had not the financial carrot been dangled so enticingly by a government more intent on securing a conviction than in upholding the law.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

DeLorean, John. On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors. Grosse Pointe, Mich.: Wright, 1979.

DeLorean, John and Ted Schwarz. DeLorean. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1985.

Fallon, Ivan and James Strodes. DeLorean, the Rise and Fall of a Dream-Maker. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983.

Haddad, William. Hard Driving. New York: Random House, 1985.

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John DeLorean Trial: 1984

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