Oliver North Trial: 1989
Oliver North Trial: 1989
Defendant: Oliver Laurence North
Crimes Charged: Obstruction of justice, corruption, and perjury
Chief Defense Lawyers: Barry Simon and Brendan V. Sullivan, Jr.
Chief Prosecutors: Michael Bromwich, John Keker, and David Zornow
Judge: Gerhard Gesell
Place: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trial: January 31-May 4, 1989
Verdict: Guilty, 3 counts; Not guilty, 9 counts
Sentence: $150,000 fine, 2 years probation, 1,200 hours of community service
SIGNIFICANCE: "I was only following orders" has been an excuse of soldiers facing disciplinary action since time immemorial. But the trial of Colonel Oliver North added a new dimension, as a nation wondered, "just who did issue those orders?"
In 1985 the administration of President Ronald Reagan embarked on a plan to secure the release of American hostages by illegally selling arms to Iran. Funds from those sales were channeled to the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua who were attempting to overthrow that country's leftist government. When news of this deal broke in 1986, a Congressional hearing followed. Under promise of immunity, Oliver North, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and member of President Reagan's National Security Council (NSC), provided an account of the U.S. government's role. North's emotional performance captured the public imagination but left doubts about his veracity. A grand jury later charged him with having lied to Congress, obstructed justice, and received kickbacks.
Jury selection and other legal gyrations delayed opening arguments until February 21, 1988. Chief Prosecutor John Keker laid out the government's case, alleging that North had shredded documents and altered computer records, knowing them to be vital to the Iran-Contra investigation, before visiting U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III. There, he "met with the attorney general and some of his top assistants, and when they asked him questions about something very important to know, he lied.…The evidence in this case is going to show that these were crimes, and the reason for these crimes was that Colonel North was covering up crimes he had already committed."
Defender Brendan Sullivan's response was simple and direct. His client "never broke the law. He acted within the law at all times. He followed the instructions of the highest ranking officials of the United States of America. He protected the secrets that he was ordered to protect, to save the lives of many people, many sources, many relationships. That's what he was ordered to do, and he followed his orders as any Marine Corps officer and any officer that worked at the National Security Council [would do]." Sullivan painted a stirring portrait of North as a Vietnam war hero, whose personal valor under fire had led to the heady promotions that came his way.
The biggest problem facing prosecutors was that most of their witnesses were unswerving admirers of North, with testimony couched in such a way as to impart the facts without leaving any doubts as to which side they were really on. Contra leader Adolfo Calero was typical. "He [North] became sort of a savior.… The Nicaraguan people have a tremendous appreciation of this man. So much so … that they're going to erect a monument for him once we free Nicaragua." Rarely has a prosecution witness been more accommodating to the defense.
Former NSC advisor Robert McFarlane—North's immediate superior—took the stand, already having pleaded guilty to four separate charges of withholding information from Congress. Reluctant and evasive, McFarlane had a knack for framing his answers in language and syntax so arcane as to render them incomprehensible. One of his few unambiguous responses came when Keker asked, "Do you ever recall hearing the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, instruct you or anyone else in your presence to lie to … Congress?"
"No," McFarlane replied.
Probably the witness more eagerly anticipated than any other was Fawn Hall, North's former secretary. A media favorite, she told of deliberately shredding papers at North's request and also smuggling documents from his office. "I … placed them inside the back of my skirt so they were secured there." Those reporters present hoping for elaboration on this last tantalizing tidbit were disappointed; Hall, yet another witness clearly under North's spell, said nothing further to harm him.
When North testified, he did so with the same confidence that had served him so well at the congressional hearing. The first part of his testimony comprised a condensed version of the $25,000-a-night speech that he had been making lately to boost coffers for his defense fund. In a brief geopolitical slide show, North sketched a picture of the United States under assault at every border. He explained how only the efforts of himself and other like-minded Cold War knights kept the Western world safe from communism. Asked by Sullivan how he regarded his position, the defendant replied in the tremulous voice that had become his trademark, "I felt like a pawn in a chess game being played by giants."
The prosecution, determined to keep the jury's attention on the charges and not allow them to be swayed by appeals to their emotions, began by probing North about $300,000 in travelers checks, which had passed through his hands. "Where would you keep careful track of it, in what kind of book?" asked Keker.
"In a ledger."
"Is that ledger still around?"
"No, … it was destroyed."
"Do you know who destroyed it?"
"I did," North grudgingly admitted.
Equally suspicious was the source of $15,000 in cash which North kept at his home. He insisted that it came from his pocket change, dutifully deposited in a metal box every Friday evening over the course of 20 years.
Keker was incredulous. "The change in your pocket grew to $15,000?"
In building their case, prosecutors had compiled a large dossier on North, detailing his occasional economies with the truth. That groundwork paid off. Over four days of cross-examination, Keker repeatedly trapped the defendant in an endless succession of contradictions and deceit, especially on matters of money. When North left the stand, the aura of selfless patriot had been replaced by one of artful dissembler.
In the wake of this mauling, Sullivan did a masterful job of damage control. He returned to and expanded on the theme of North as victim: "I draw the conclusion that the president was using Ollie North as a scapegoat" Sullivan concluded on a biblical note, "'Greater love hath no man than he be willing to lay down his life for another.' That's Ollie North, that's the kind of man he is."
Now it was up to the jury. They retired on April 20. Twelve days of deliberation produced not guilty verdicts on every count save three. It was a long way from the clear message that the prosecutors wanted to send. Their disappointment only hardened when Judge Gerhard Gesell imposed sentence: $150,000 fine, two years probation, and 1,200 hours of community service. At the very least, the prosecution had been expecting some jail time. North supporters rushed to pay the fine but it was all academic. On July 20, 1990, the U.S. Court of Appeals, citing that evidence used against North had been obtained under immunity, overturned the convictions, wiping the stigma of "felon' from his name.
North has since made a career both as host to and frequent guest on political talk shows. In 1994, he ran as the Republican candidate for senator from Virginia but lost to incumbent Democratic senator, Charles Robb. Despite this loss, North has hinted that he may run for public office sometime in the future.
Hero or villain? Oliver North's astonishing charisma and a carelessly enacted immunity provision pulled him through. Whether that makes his actions excusable is still open to debate.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Bradlee, Ben, Jr. Cuts and Glory. New York: D.I. Fine, 1988.
Meyer, Peter. Defiant Patriot. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
North, Oliver L. and William Novak. Under Fire. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Toobin, Jeffrey. Opening Arguments. New York: Viking Press, 1991.