By DAVID KIDWELL
Herald Staff Writer
The criminal trials of 10 alleged Cuban spies could be delayed for months
longer -- because of an infrequently used law that gives prosecutors the ability to
withhold secret documents vital to national security.
Defense attorneys face extensive -- some say intrusive -- personal background
checks, and prosecutors already have asked for delays in procedures that under
normal circumstances would force them to begin handing over evidence by
``We're all standing around like a bunch of idiots with literally nothing
to do right
now,'' said Paul McKenna, defense attorney for alleged ring mastermind Manuel
``Giraldo'' Viramontes. ``The government has made these broad allegations, and it
appears we're not going to see any actual evidence for quite some time.''
All 10 suspects are being held in federal detention without bail on charges
conspiracy and failing to register as a foreign agent.
Federal prosecutors Caroline Heck-Miller and Guy Lewis are expected to
motion this week seeking to keep certain records secret for national security
interests, Heck-Miller said during a hearing Monday. At the same hearing, eight of
the 10 suspected spies pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate William Turnoff.
Even the motion itself, defense attorneys said, will be held under seal.
``It's kind of ironic,'' McKenna said. ``I've got to go explain all this
to my client,
and I'm sure he won't be surprised. After all, he is from Cuba.''
Meanwhile, two suspects who were not arraigned Monday have been negotiating
a plea agreement, as prosecutors maneuvered behind the scenes in attempts to
The plea deal, which would have kept the husband/wife team of Nilo and
Hernandez from being named in Friday's indictment, fell through late last week,
their attorneys said.
``Prosecutors are shopping deals and possibly flips,'' said Richard J.
represents Nilo Hernandez, 44. ``We listened, but in the end decided to reject the
offer. It would be malpractice for me to advise my client to plead guilty to a crime
when we haven't been afforded an opportunity yet to see the government's hard
Other defense attorneys suggest its a typical case of ``first rats to the
saying attorneys use to describe the practice of defendants lowest in the criminal
hierarchy racing to cut early deals with prosecutors.
The 10 alleged Cuban spies were arrested last month in what authorities
a sophisticated -- although low budget -- conspiracy to infiltrate Cuban exile
groups and U.S. military installations and send information back to Cuba.
A federal grand jury on Friday indicted three on charges of conspiracy
national defense information to Cuba and seven others on much less serious
charges of acting as agents of Cuba without notifying the U.S. attorney general.
Defense attorneys rushed to point out that while the 19-page indictment
conspiracy, and specific acts of deception and attempts at infiltration, it does not
make any specific allegations of espionage, the actual transfer of sensitive
information to Communist Cuba.
``There are no substantive charges here at all,'' said Jack Blumenfeld,
court-appointed attorney for Antonio Guerrero, one of three facing a life prison
sentence on the conspiracy charge. ``They have three years of wiretaps, room
bugs, even surreptitious entries -- burglaries -- and they don't have any specifics.''
The three-year federal investigation allegedly began after an alleged conspirator's
computer was stolen in a Los Angeles burglary and later was given to authorities, a
government assertion defense attorneys say they view with skepticism.
Defense attorneys for each of the alleged spies are also being forced to
security clearance -- answering personal questions about unpaid bills, mental
health maladies or previous drug use -- before they are allowed to inspect
It remains unclear what documents or evidence against the alleged spies
remain secret. Prosecutors have been mum. But attorneys interviewed suggest that
the records in dispute will have to be reviewed in secret by Magistrate Turnoff,
who will make a decision how to handle sensitive evidence.
Defense attorneys in South Florida were asked to submit to similar procedures
during the 1992 trial of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, when
sensitive documents were inspected in a secured basement at the federal
But aside from the inconvenience, some defense attorneys are lamenting
invasion of privacy. ``The whole process is pretty extensive, and intrusive,'' said
Gary Kollin, a Fort Lauderdale attorney appointed to represent Amarylis Silverio.
``Especially with the kind of weak case they've got.
``What bothers me is that this could really grind everything to a halt
while our clients sit in jail,'' he said.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald