Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A conviction in Havana with "due process" (Updated)

To its credit, the Trump Administration has maintained law enforcement cooperation with Cuba, holding regular dialogues and even building on some of the work of its predecessors. This fits with its border control/homeland security emphasis, and it surely rubs some of its political supporters the wrong way.

We now have details on the most notable instance of this cooperation, thanks to this Miami Herald story on the conviction of a defendant for a 2015 murder in Palm Beach. What is unusual is that while the crime took place here, and local prosecutors amassed evidence against the accused, the trial took place in a Cuban court, with Cuban prosecutors presenting evidence gathered in Palm Beach.

This is apparently due to the fact that the defendant, a Cuban national, was arrested in Cuba at the request of the United States through Interpol, but the Cuban government would not turn him over because of his Cuban nationality.

At some point, Cuba offered and the United States agreed to “transfer the prosecution” to Cuba, as the Herald puts it (on this part of the story, no details have emerged). A conviction was obtained in late May, and the convict is serving 20 years in a Cuban jail.

There has never been a case such as this, where U.S. authorities provided evidence that allowed Cuban prosecutors to bring a case in Cuban court for a crime committed outside Cuban territory – and in so doing, confiding in the Cuban judicial process to render a fair verdict.

To make it explicit, the Justice Department told the Herald something you would never expect from a Republican Administration: “The defendant was provided the procedural and due process rights afforded to criminal defendants under Cuban law, to include the right to counsel and cross-examination, and to review the evidence against him.”

The U.S.-Cuba Memorandum of Understanding on law enforcement, signed just days before President Obama left office, expresses a mutual intention to collaborate in the prosecution of a list of specific crimes and of “other transnational or serious crimes under jurisdiction of the Participants” (see Section III.1).

It’s hard to imagine a new, full-blown U.S.-Cuba extradition agreement that would replace the 1904 treaty that has never been abrogated, but has been a dead letter for six decades. In this case, with its very particular circumstances, the cooperation arrangements now in place yielded a result.

Which leads me to wonder if the Administration views this as a special action for this specific case, or if there is a policy decision that could lead to similar actions in the future. If it’s the latter, and if Cuba is on board, it could lead to trials of Medicare scammers who have fled to Cuba.

The State Department’s July 10 statement made a brief reference to this case, and I wrote about it here.


The Palm Beach Sherriff’s office issued a statement saying that county prosecutors traveled to Cuba to work with Cuban prosecutors, and one of its detectives testified at the Havana trial. It is the first time that “a Cuban citizen was put on trial in Cuba for a murder committed in the United States,” the statement says. 

And in another Florida case, this one involving vehicular manslaughter, a Cuban witness was allowed to provide video testimony from Cuba, where he exculpated the defendant and inculpated himself (Herald).

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