October 29, 2008
The federal trial of a wealthy businessman accused of working as an illegal agent for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez could be headed for a hung jury.
The Miami jury said it could not agree on a verdict Wednesday after nearly four days of deliberating whether Venezuelan Franklin Durán came to South Florida last year to silence a business associate about a cash-filled suitcase intended for an Argentine politician.
''We cannot reach a unanimous verdict,'' the 12-member jury said in a note read by U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard. No other explanation was given.
Lenard told the prosecution and defense that she will instruct jurors to continue deliberations on Thursday, noting the trial lasted almost two months and deliberations just four days.
Prosecutor Thomas Mulvihill and defense attorney Ed Shohat asked the judge to continue deliberations rather than seek a mistrial.
The deliberations first got underway on Friday afternoon in the closely watched trial dubbed ``Suitcase-gate.''
Durán is charged with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered government agent. He faces up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted. During much of the trial, Durán listened impassively as the prosecution argued he was at the center of an attempt to hide the origins and destination of the $800,000 in cash that was discovered last year in an Argentine airport -- money that prosecutors allege was a gift from the Venezuelan government to the campaign of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Durán's business partner, Carlos Kauffmann -- who already pleaded guilty to playing a role in the alleged conspiracy -- testified during the trial that the pair's multimillion-dollar business deals in Venezuela were built on an extensive network of bribes to government officials.
He told jurors that the partners expected to obtain more lucrative contracts in exchange for coming to South Florida to hush up a business associate who was stopped with the suitcase filled with $800,000 in alleged campaign cash in Argentina last year.
Durán, 40, would receive ''big time favors'' for his cooperation, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley told the 12-member jury during his closing arguments.
Shohat said that Durán had personal motivations for attempting to end the scandal, chief among them a desire to help his friend, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, the Key Biscayne resident who was stopped at a Buenos Aires airport in August 2007 with the cash-filled suitcase.
Antonini was traveling with a group of Argentine and Venezuelan officials -- including state oil company executives -- at the time and said in the trial that he had been carrying the suitcase as a courtesy for another passenger.
''Everything [Durán] did, he did for himself, for Kauffmann, and . . . for his best friend in the world, Alejandro Antonini,'' Shohat said. ``He was not acting as a government agent.''
Shohat said Durán was entrapped by Antonini.
The investigation that led to Durán's arrest came after Antonini returned to Miami in the days after the cash was discovered. He went to the FBI and agreed to wear a wire.
Durán, Kauffmann and two other men -- Moises Maionica and Rodolfo Wanseele Paciello -- were later arrested, and all but Durán pleaded guilty and cooperated with the prosecution. A fifth man, José Canchica Gómez, was charged in the case and is still at large.