Government goes back on a deal
December 7, 1998
In June 1989, Alberto San Pedro struck a deal with federal agents to avoid what would likely have been life in prison for smuggling cocaine.
The deal was this: The government would release him from a state prison sentence he was about to complete, then he would go undercover to snag the mayor and a commissioner of Hialeah, Fla., who were involved in an influence-peddling scam. In return, he would be granted immunity from the new drug trafficking charges and any other crimes committed to date, and freed from prison.
He was successful. The mayor was convicted in the scam, the commissioner pleaded guilty and San Pedros cooperation was lauded by federal prosecutors as "substantial, truthful and invaluable."
San Pedro went back to prison to await his imminent release.
But by then, another set of federal agents and prosecutors from South Florida, working another case, had linked San Pedro to several drug-related crimes from years before, ranging from homicide to extortion.
Since San Pedro had been guaranteed immunity for all of his crimes, it appeared the agents were out of luck.
But not quite. Since immunity deals require a defendants complete and truthful testimony, the agents scoured transcripts of San Pedros grand jury testimony in the Hialeah cases.
Based on minor discrepancies between grand jury testimony and his testimony in court, they charged him with seven counts of perjury, figuring that would also eventually allow them to charge him with the other crimes.
In fact, within a month, San Pedro also found his name in a federal racketeering indictment, which court papers say was approved by then U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who had been briefed on the entire chain of events.
But in 1991, a judge dismissed four of the perjury counts and a jury acquitted him on the remaining three. Now the government was hamstrung: Despite its best efforts, San Pedro had upheld his end of the immunity agreement.
Yet federal prosecutors continued to press racketeering charges against him and fight his release on bond, keeping him in prison for another five years.
In 1996, more than seven years after the deal was struck, U.S. District Judge Jose Gonzalez Jr. finally ruled the government was bound by its initial agreement and dismissed all of the remaining charges against San Pedro, setting him free.
"In a day when the confidence and trust of the American people in their government ebbs, it is critical that the United States government keep its word and live up to its obligations," Gonzalez wrote. "If doing so means that it must forego convicting one person of a crime, that is a small price to pay to preserve the integrity of our institutions."