WASHINGTON -- Oliver North, the former White House aide once praised by President Ronald Reagan as 'a true American hero,' was convicted Thursday of three felonies and cleared of nine other charges from the Iran-Contra scandal.
A federal jury of nine women and three men convicted North, 45, a former staff member of the National Security Council, of destroying official documents, accepting an illegal gift of a $13,800 home security system and of aiding and abetting the obstruction of Congress in November 1986.
The retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines. U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell set June 23 for sentencing and until then, North remains free.
North, with his wife, Betsy, standing at his side, made a brief statement to reporters later in the day to announce he would appeal the verdict.
'After more than 2 years and over $40 million of our taxpayers' money spent on investigations, congressional inquisitions and now a special prosecutor who has likened me to Adolf Hitler, we now face many months, and perhaps years, of fighting the remaining charges,' North said.
'We will continue this battle with the support and prayers of the American people. We will be fully vindicated,' he added.
Chief trial prosecutor John Keker said, 'Some said our system of justice could not deal fairly, if at all, with this case. Some said that it couldn't be tried. ... The jury has spoken after a long and difficult trial, and the principle that no man is above the law has been vindicated.'
Independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who brought the charges against North in a March 16, 1988, indictment, said in a statement, 'It has been a well-conducted, hard-fought trial. The rule of law has been discharged.'
North was acquitted of nine other criminal counts, including lying to Congress, obstructing Congress, lying to the attorney general, converting more than $4,300 in traveler's checks to his own use and tax fraud.
The case arose from the secret 1985-86 U.S. arms sales to Iran and a private airlift North operated from his White House office to keep the Nicaraguan Contras -- the CIA-formed force seeking to topple the leftist Sandinista government in Managua -- armed at a time when Congress had banned aid to the rebel force.
North claimed he never acted in the affair -- which exploded into the worst scandal of Reagan's presidency -- without the approval of the innermost circle of administration advisers and the occupant of the Oval Office.
Although the celebrated trial was aimed at determining North's role in the scandal, the proceedings also raised fresh questions about the parts Reagan and President Bush played.
Trial documents said Reagan had approved 'quid pro quo' deals with several Central American nations, in which the United States offered aid in exchnage for those countries' assistance to the Contras.
Reagan, for example, approved an additional $110 million in aid to Honduras because that nation permitted Contra rebels to camp there. The documents suggested Bush conveyed the deal to Honduran leadersduring a 1985 trip.
The verdict was returned on the same day that the Senate Intelligence Committee said it would investigate Bush's role anew and just a day short of the second anniversary of the opening of the summer-long 1987 congressional Iran-Contra hearings.
At the White House, Bush said, 'There was no quid pro quo, direct or indirect.'
'The word of the president of the United States, George Bush, is there was no quid pro quo,' he said.
Later, Bush was asked, 'Will you pardon North?' and he did not answer. After the verdict, a spokesman said the White House did not plan to issue a statement.
On April 24, in his most recent comment on a possible pardon, Bush said: 'I haven't discussed it or shared my thoughts with anybody.'
In Los Angeles, Reagan spokesman Mark Weinberg said, 'Because of the likelihood of further legal proceedings, it would not be appropriate for President Reagan to comment at this time.'
On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders either praised the jury or North. Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine, a member of the Senate Iran-Contra committee and a former federal judge, said, 'I believe in the American system of justice based on trial by jury. I respect the jury's verdict in the North case.'
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also member of the special Senate panel, said, 'If you really look at it objectively, Oliver North has been largely vindicated. What we have here is a jury that did not think he was as guilty as so many members of Congress who have been pressing these matters have thought.'
North was convicted of destroying official NSC documents detailing his role in the secret Contra resupply operation and of accepting the security system, which was purchased with money from accounts holding funds diverted from the U.S. arms sales to Iran.
In addition, the jury found North guilty of aiding and abetting an administration effort in November 1986 to hide from Congress the details of the secret overtures to Tehran's radical Islamic government.
In that charge specifically, North was convicted of helping administration officials write chronologies that contained false information about the arms sales and of destroying other official documents that described the dealings.
The arms sales were efforts to buy the freedom for American hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iran extremists.
However, the jury acquitted North of lying to Congress in 1985 letters that claimed North was abiding by the 'spirit and the letter' of the Boland Amendment, the congressional ban on aid to the Contras.
In addition, North was cleared of obstructing Congress and of tax fraud. That charge accused North of soliciting private Americans for millions of dollars in contributions that purchased weapons for the Contras.
Brendan Sullivan, North's lawyer, called his client the target of the 'largest, most costly criminal investigation in the history of our country' and vowed a lengthy post-trial battle. 'There will be post-trial motions filed. There will be an appeal filed. ... We expect to prevail on the remaining three counts and you can be assured that we will never abandon Colonel North and his family in this legal battle,' the combative and sometimes acid-tongued Sullivan said.
North projected the air of an honorable man battered but not broken by innuendo or indictment throughout the trial. His wife often brought the couple's four well-scrubbed children to court, and North wore his Naval Academy ring -- class of 1968 -- as a talisman of courage.
With wounded looks and an outraged tone, North took umbrage at any suggestion at his trial and the congressional Iran-Contra hearings that he ever violated the law. His two tours in Vietnam, he said, showed him the dangers of communism and his Marine career taught him the importance of obedience.
He has been making the rounds of the lecture circuit -- at $25,000 a speech -- preaching the virtues of American democracy and 'traditional family values.'
Jury foreman Denise Anderson, 34, a hospital secretary, sent Gesell a message at 1:29 p.m. EDT that the panel had reached a verdict after deliberating 64 hours in 12 days.
Jurors, who were sequestered during deliberations, reviewed the testimony of 50 witnesses and the 363 exhibits accumulated over the trial's eight weeks. After the verdict was read, the jury returned to their hotel to gather belongings before being escorted home by U.S. marshals.
Clad in a charcoal gray suit, North sat with his lawyer and stared at his hands while the convictions were read by Gesell, 78, a veteran of the Watergate and Pentagon Papers trials.
North's wife, Betsy, sat in the first row of the courtroom with the couple's minister, the Rev. David Harper of Fairfax, Va. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., a staunch supporter of North, sat behind Betsy North.
Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., who served on the Senate Iran-Contra committee, said he felt justice had been served and North was paying for his 'zealotry.'
North is a 'tragic' figure, Rudman said, but, 'He did some things which in America today you have to be held accountable for.'
Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who led the special House panel that investigated the affair, said he was not surprised by the verdict: 'I don't feel any sense of elation. I don't feel any sense of disappointment.' Hamilton was the first witness at North's trial.
The Iran-Contra scandal, which began with the exposure of the secret arms sales to Iran on Nov. 4, 1986 and then exploded into the worst scandal of Reagan's presidency with the Nov. 25, 1986, revelation that arms-sales profits were diverted into Swiss accounts for the Contra airlift North ran.
North was fired from his job that day but several hours later, Reagan telephoned to praise him as 'a true American hero.' Bush, too, has called North a hero, and conservatives unsuccessfully pressed Reagan to grant North a pardon before leaving the presidency.
But Walsh, who spent 2 years and more than $13 million to bring the case to trial, charged North willfully lied to Congress and was illegally enriched by proceeds from the arms sales to Iran.
A federal grand jury indicted North and three others on criminal charges arising from the scandal. Also accused were former national security adviser John Poindexter, a retired Navy rear admiral, and two of North's private operatives, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord and Albert Hakim. All three are awaiting trial.
Robert McFarlane, Poindexter's predecessor, was convicted last year for withholding information from Congress about North's work for the Contras.
The case of United States vs. Oliver L. North almost did not come to trial.
Last autumn, North's defense team from the powerful firm of Williams & Connolly demanded access to 40,000 classified documents in an request Walsh called blatant 'graymail' -- an effort to kill a prosecution by threatening to open a Pandora's box of state secrets at trial.
Gesell instead used the 1980 Classified Information Procedures Act, which provides guidelines for getting sensitive cases to trial, to limit the number of documents that either side could use.
Despite the judge's guidance, Walsh was forced Jan. 13 to drop two major conspiracy counts against North because U.S. intelligence agencies were concerned that too many state secrets would be at risk.
With a narrower 12-count case in hand, Walsh stepped away from prosecuting North himself to pursue investigations against others. Walsh named Keker and ex-New York prosecutors Michael Bromwich and David Zornow as the trial team.
In the meantime, North subpoenaed Bush and Reagan. Gesell quashed the demand for Bush's testimony Jan. 30 and killed the Reagan subpoena March 31, saying the ex-president's appearance was not necessary for North's defense.
Jury selection began Jan. 31, but the defense complained no impartial panel could be seated because in July 1987, North testified with immunity from prosecution to the congressional Iran-Contra committees. Defense lawyers claimed the widespread coverage of North's testimony 'tainted' any jury pool.
But 12 Washington residents said they never listened to or watched the 1987 hearings and some could not pick North out in the courtroom. Among them were a Labor Department statistician, a retired bus driver and a World War II veteran who marched in the Third Army of Gen. George Patton.
The jury was about to be sworn in when the Justice Department complained that Gesell's guidelines to handle state secrets at trial were not tough enough.
Exasperated, Gesell said he would not preside over a 'cuckoo-clock trial,' in which the jury would be removed from the courtroom repeatedly while lawyers fought over what secrets could be used.
Refused at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the administration got a stay of the trial from Chief Justice William Rehnquist. After frenzied negotiation, the Justice Department and Walsh agreed to live with Gesell's guidelines and the jury was sworn in Feb. 21.
'For Oliver North, a time for judgment has come,' Keker said in his opening statement. Sullivan said his client loyally served his president and was 'abandoned by his government' amid a spreading scandal.
In the next six weeks, the prosecution built its case with witnesses who often were friendlier to North than the prosecution - including McFarlane, Contra leader Adolfo Calero and North's ex-secretary Fawn Hall, who cried on the witness stand.
Sullivan, unable to bring Reagan into court, was left with a string of minor witnesses. But he did introduce a 42-page 'admission' that yielded the trial's greatest revelation -- a far deeper role for Reagan in approving the 'quid pro quo' deals to other countries in exchange for support for the Contras.
On April 6, in the trial's most dramatic moment, Sullivan put his client on the witness stand for six grueling days. At first, under his lawyer's gentle questioning, North portrayed himself as an officer and a gentleman cruelly betrayed by politicians -- 'a pawn in a chess game played by giants.'
But in four days of punishing cross-examination conducted in an often-mocking tone, Keker suggested North was a liar and a thief.
When asked why he was able to make some huge cash purchases - including an $8,300 GMC Suburban and a $7,000 thoroughbred horse for his daughter -- North said he had a cache kept in a steel box bolted to a closet floor in his home.
In closing arguments, Keker said that for North, 'Lying had become a habit; deceit had become a watchword'; Sullivan accused the government of persecuting North with 'a phony case from start to finish.'
But Gesell, in his instructions to the jurors, said they had to find 'clear, direct' instructions from Reagan to accept North's claim he was ordered to violate laws -- but, 'Neither the president nor any of (North's) superiors had the legal authority to order anyone to break the law.'
North's trial sharply contrasted with the six days in July 1987 when, in his bemedaled Marine Corps uniform, he testified to the Iran-Contra committees. Then, his earnest manner and gap-toothed smile charmed a national broadcast audience. Fan clubs formed and donations to his legal defense fund flowed.
But in Gesell's marbled, vaulted courtroom, North wore a somber face and a civilian's dark suit -- he retired from the Marines May 1, 1988. Sketch artists used a lot of gray pencil to draw his hair.