October 16, 2008
The federal judge in the case of a money-stuffed suitcase seized in Argentina ruled Thursday that the defendant's lawyer can argue to the jury that his client was ''entrapped'' by the U.S. government's star witness.
The startling ruling could weaken the government's contention that the defendant, wealthy Venezuelan businessman Franklin Durán, violated U.S. law when he came to South Florida acting as an agent of the Venezuelan government without registering with the U.S. government
The government further maintains that Durán had been instructed by a Venezuelan official to buy the silence of Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, the government's chief witness, after Antonini was stopped in Argentina with a suitcase containing almost $800,000 in August 2007.
U.S. officials maintain the money was a secret campaign contribution by the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was then running for president of Argentina.
Chávez and Fernández de Kirchner have denied the allegation.
But Ed Shohat, Durán's defense attorney, argued that his client came to South Florida on his own to try to help his former friend -- Antonini -- avoid possible charges in Argentina. Shohat also argued that no evidence emerged during the trial that anyone in the Venezuelan government ordered Durán to travel to Miami and silence Antonini.
He won that argument Thursday evening when U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard ruled that in his closing arguments and in written jury instructions Shohat can say that his client feels he was the victim of U.S. government entrapment.
Lenard, in her verbal ruling, said that when instructions are read to jurors before they start deliberations a segment can say: ``It is Mr. Durán's position that Alejandro Antonini, acting as an undercover informant and as an agent for the FBI, entrapped him.''
Lenard said there was ''sufficient evidentiary foundation'' for Durán to demonstrate that Antonini's behavior met the legal criteria for jurors to consider the claim of entrapment.
Government prosecutors asked Lenard to allow them to balance the entrapment claim with a segment in jury instructions advising jurors that Durán was ''predisposed'' to violate U.S. law because he had previously paid bribes and kickbacks to Venezuelan officials.
Shohat objected and arguments will continue Friday.
This has delayed closing arguments and deliberations until next week.