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Alleged cocaine lord Sal Magluta goes on trial April 8 for allegedly running a deadly money-laundering conspiracy, and the government and the federal court are taking extraordinary precautions to prevent a replay of the debacle that occurred when he was tried six years ago. Back then, a different case against Magluta and co-defendant Augusto “Willie” Falcon unexpectedly melted away when jury foreman Miguel Moya took a secret $500,000 bribe. This time, presiding U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Seitz in Miami will allow the U.S. Attorney’s Office to run background checks on selected jurors. The scope of those checks, and which federal agency will conduct them, has not been spelled out in court documents. The nature of the charges against Magluta explain the heavy precautions: conspiracy to launder money and obstruct justice, bribing a juror, bribing a witness, and witness tampering through murder and attempted murder. If Magluta wins, he’ll walk free for the first time since being jailed for bond jumping in 1997. For years, federal prosecutors have encountered significant obstacles while trying to prosecute Magluta and Falcon, two Miami high school dropouts. When compared with the thousands of other drug cases tried in South Florida since the 1980s, a disproportionate number of witnesses against Falcon and Magluta got cold feet or ended up dead. Meanwhile, the defendants always seemed to find the money to retain high-powered lawyers, even while behind bars. Background checks, used on a limited basis in trials involving the drug gang’s underlings, aren’t the only step taken to tamper-proof this jury. At Seitz’s direction, the U.S. court clerk’s office recently mailed a 20-page advance questionnaire to dozens of randomly selected prospective jurors in the Magluta case. The questions probe the jurors’ personal lives and inquire about their knowledge of the highly publicized case. Such questions normally are asked in open court during jury selection. But what happened in 1996, and in another incident in November during the related trial of Magluta’s brother-in-law, Eduardo Lezcano, convinced authorities that a pretrial questionnaire was a good idea. In the Lezcano case, a computer background check discovered that a man questioned during jury selection hadn’t disclosed a prior felony conviction. The man, who later explained he’d been confused when questioned, was excluded from serving on the jury. The case ended in Lezcano’s conviction for the murders of three government witnesses. The Magluta questionnaire should avoid such confusion. Judge Seitz, in a cover letter sent with the form, also said it would “save time” as both sides weed through the field of potential jurors. “The responses that you give will be kept under seal in the strictest confidence,” Seitz assured the prospective jurors in her letter. “They will be reviewed by only the judge and the attorneys for the parties and their staffs. If you are selected, the attorney will be permitted to retain a copy but will be under order of the court to use the contents only for purposes of this case.” The questionnaires of nonjurors will be destroyed, Seitz said. “There are no right or wrong answers — only honest answers,” Seitz noted. Her letter also predicted a “protracted trial, possibly lasting three to four months.” The Daily Business Review obtained a copy of the questionnaire. Two of the most pointed questions are: “How would you feel about being a juror on a case involving allegations of bribing a juror?” And, “Do you have any reservations about being a juror in this case?” You wonder who in his right mind wouldn’t have reservations. Neither Magluta’s Miami attorney, Jack M. Denaro, nor Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael “Pat” Sullivan would comment for the record. Magluta’s trial amounts to the first act of a mega-trial that will conclude with the trial of co-defendant Falcon. Both men were indicted together in the same sprawling money-laundering conspiracy in 1999, but Falcon’s case was severed from Magluta’s by the judge, and his trial will now be held after Magluta’s is finished. The judge severed Falcon’s case to avoid a so-called “spillover effect” — from the witness tampering charges against Magluta alone — which could bias the jury against Falcon. So far, no steps have been taken to pre-screen jurors for Falcon’s trial. Willie and Sal, as the former offshore powerboat racing champions are sometimes known, are in jail without bond pending trial. If convicted, each faces life in prison. The current charges arose from their earlier trial. In February 1996, the pair was acquitted following a four-month trial on charges that for 13 years they’d run one of the biggest drug smuggling operations ever uncovered in the United States. The verdict, despite a mountain of evidence, stunned nearly everyone, including then-U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey. He took solace at a local bar, got into an altercation, then resigned a few months later after the incident became publicly known. But, it turns out, the acquittal didn’t result from the prosecution’s failure alone. In 1998, jury foreman Moya was indicted for taking a bribe to fix the Willie and Sal case. He was convicted in July 1999, and is currently serving a 17 1/2-year prison sentence. In August 1999, Willie and Sal and the boys faced new indictments, and their cases were split up into several trials, including Lezcano’s last autumn. Next up are the charges against Magluta. Despite the government’s concerns about the integrity of the jury in Magluta’s case, the court decided not to pull out all the stops to protect the jury from improper influence. In January, Judge Seitz rejected the U.S. Attorney’s request to partially sequester jurors in the Magluta case and keep their identities a secret. It’s too soon to know whether the court’s unusual efforts will make Magluta’s trial less corrupt than those that have gone before.

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