Judge chastises prosecutors about delay in U.S. trial about Haitian president’s murder

Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com | Feb. 14, 2023

Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen, at podium, joins U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe, left, as they talk in Miami about the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. The U.S. says it does not foresee a trial happening this year.

A federal judge in charge of the United States’ case against nearly a dozen defendants in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse took prosecutors to task Monday for delaying the trial, saying he is troubled by the jailed defendants being forced to spend more than a year behind bars before they can go to trial.

“It’s very troublesome to me,” U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez said. “I’m a fairly conservative guy, but I don’t believe you should round somebody up and put them in jail until you know what’s going on. ... I don’t want to have a case sitting around for a couple of years while people are in jail. It bothers me.”

There are 11 defendants in federal detention in Miami in the plot that led to Moïse’s July 7, 2021, assassination. Most of the defendants are charged with supporting a conspiracy to kidnap and kill the Haitian president, while two others are charged with export violations involving bulletproof vests. The vests were smuggled to former Colombian soldiers who were in Haiti and allegedly carried out the fatal shooting of Moïse and seriously wounded his wife, Martine.

The jailed defendants in Miami are from Colombia, South Florida and Haiti. A trial date was initially set for May 8, although one of the defendants, businessman and convicted cocaine trafficker Rodolphe Jaar, pleaded guilty last month to three charges related to his role in the plot.

A dual Haitian-Chilean citizen, Jaar, 50, admitted to providing money to pay for weapons, food and lodging for Colombian former commandos and others suspected of killing Haiti’s president. In exchange for the plea deal, Jaar is hoping to avoid a potential life sentence for providing “material support” in the plot.

On Monday, federal prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg told the judge she expected more defendants to cut plea deals. However, given that “this is a very complex case” with “a voluminous amount of discovery” in various languages and from three countries, Goldbarg said she did not foresee a trial happening this year.

“A trial date in 2023 is unlikely,” she said. Prosecutors, Goldbarg said, estimate that they will need at least four more months to turn over evidence to defense attorneys.

“Before you go and arrest people you have to have a good idea of what they did and how you are going to prove it,” the judge responded.

The judge then asked which defendant has been detained the longest. Defense attorney Alfredo Izaguirre, who represents Colombian former soldier Mario Antonio Palacios Palacios, responded that his client has been in custody since January 2022. Palacios was the first to be arrested in the U.S. after he was picked up in Panama during a layover to Colombia from Jamaica, where he fled after the killing.

“Two years from the time they were arrested?” Martinez asked. “That doesn’t seem right.”

Speaking on behalf of the defense lawyers, most of whom have been court-appointed, Henry Bell told the judge that they have a lot of information to sift through. Bell represents Frederick Bergmann Jr., who is described as being part of the financing arm of the operation and faces one of the lesser charges in the case involving the smuggling of bulletproof vests from Florida to Haiti.

Bell said the lawyers can’t “competently defend this case” or negotiate plea deals without reviewing the evidence, starting with an enormous amount of text messages.

“A lot of important evidence is contained in our clients’ cellphones,” Bell said. “There’s a lot to go through, even downloading the stuff ... is an arduous task. We really do need the time.”

Martinez told prosecutors to get moving on handing over the discovery evidence. He set another status hearing in two months and set a new trial date for July 17. He said he recognized that the trial’s delay is in the interest of justice and noted that the case’s complexities require “a substantial amount of preparation.”

In a separate investigation in Haiti, more than 40 suspects have been arrested. Most of them remain in custody in Port-au-Prince, where they are still awaiting formal charges. The case, which had stalled, has regained momentum under the supervision of its fifth judge. Last week, Haitian police arrested a new suspect, Mozart Prevot, the driver of one of the jailed U.S. defendants, former Sen. John Joël Joseph.

Miami Herald federal-courts reporter Jay Weaver contributed to this report..

Jacqueline Charles: 305-376-2616, @jacquiecharles