Jury to hear North case

WASHINGTON (AP)—The jury in Oliver North’s Iran-Contra trial was dispatched Thursday to decide the guilt or innocence of the former White House aide with the judge’s admonition that no one, including the president, had “the legal authority to order anyone to violate the law.”

North has said he had authority from superiors including, he believed, President Reagan, for many of his actions on behalf of the Nicaraguan rebels at a time when official U.S. aid was banned.

Because of the lateness of the hour, jurors were sent to the nearby hotel where they will be sequestered, and ordered to begin deliberations on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell told them “your job is to decide the facts” in the first trial stemming from the mid-1980s affair in which profits from arms sales to Iran were diverted to aid the Nicaraguan rebels.

The judge was specific in his instruction about North’s contention that he acted under orders from top White House officials and, he assumed, with Reagan’s approval.

“Neither the president nor any of the defendant’s superiors had the legal authority to order anyone to violate the law,” Gesell said.

“Our country is governed by the rule of law. You have heard testimony indicating that other government officials may in some respects have concealed facts known to them, and some ranking above or below the defendant may have engaged in conduct similar to that charged against the defendant on trial.”

But, he said, the conduct of others was no justification for North’s conduct and “you are not to judge defendant’s guilt or innocence based solely on the actions of others.”

The judge’s charge was delayed for a half day by a problem involving jurors who might have given misleading answers in pre-trial questioning. When he convened court in the afternoon, Gesell said he had denied North a motion for a mistrial, filed on grounds that “the jury had been infected by publicity about some of its members.”

The five alternates were dismissed after Gesell gave the instructions and were driven home individually by U.S. marshals.

Gesell said North’s defense that he was authorized to cover up his secret Contra role may be considered, but under closely defined circumstances.

“Authorization requires clear, direct instruction to act at a given time in a given way,” he said. “It must be specific, not simply a general admonition or vague expression of preference. It must be sufficiently precise.”

The most attentive person in the courtroom as Gesell read his long instructions appeared to be North, whose eyes seldom left the judge. Occasionally, the 47 year-old defendant would make a note on a legal pad.

Six of the charges involve withholding information from Congress when it sought to find out about North’s and the National Security Council’s role in supplying aid to the Contras at a time when it was forbidden.

Conviction on each of those counts carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Each of the 12 counts has a $250,000 penalty, for a maximum of $3 million.

North also is charged with obstructing a presidential inquiry, making false statements when he was questioned by Attorney General Edwin Meese III and conspiring to defraud the United States through illegal use of a tax-exempt foundation. Each of those counts carries a 5-year penalty.

One count of altering, destroying and concealing documents is punishable by three years in prison; another, of accepting an illegal gratuity—a $13,800 security system—is punishable by two years. The remaining count, converting traveler’s checks to his personal use carries a 10-year maximum sentence.

Gesell had scheduled final instructions to the jury in the morning, but instead remained in his chambers, apparently requestioning some or all of the jurors and alternates.

ABC News reported that two jurors had been named as defendants in civil suits involving accidents in 1982. Both answered “no” on jury questionnaires asking whether they had “ever been involved as a party … in any court proceedings (civil or criminal).” The cases were settled out of court.

ABC also reported that the first alternate juror, Joseph L. Ward, 33, who answered “no” to the same question, had been arrested in 1974 on a charge of sale and possession of narcotics. He was placed on probation for a year, the network said. He also was arrested in 1987 on a marijuana possession charge but was not prosecuted, it said.