Criminal Defense Newsletter View
By Pat Ford
A Joint Publication of the San Diego Criminal Defense Bar Association and the Criminal Defense Lawyers Club
A standing ovation to Russell S. Babcock for his relentless efforts to secure an acquittal for his client (Alexandre Chagovic) in the largest seizure of cocaine in United States maritime history. Russell was appointed by the federal court to represent Mr. Chagovic pursuant to the federal CJA Act.
On April 28, 2001, the United States Coast Guard interdicted a large fishing vessel, the Svesda Maru, five hundred miles off the coast of Acapulco after receiving a tip from an informant that it was laden with drugs. After a five-day search of the ship, the U.S. government found over ten tons of cocaine, the largest seizure in U.S. history, with a street value of over 1.6 billion dollars.
The multi-defendant trial was held in San Diego. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, but on July 14, 2004, a second jury acquitted Mr. Chagovic and four other defendants of all charges.
Russell is deserving of recognition for several reasons. First, of all of the attorneys in the group representing co-defendants, only Russell traveled to Russia, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador to obtain evidence to exonerate his client.
Before the first trial, Russell and his investigator went to Russia and collected positive character evidence about his client that was admitted at trial. Just days before the second trial, he went with his investigator to South America to obtain the evidence that most probably resulted in the acquittal. The government’s theory was that the drugs were loaded at sea because it would be impossible to load at port due to tight security; thus, all the deck hands would have knowledge of the presence of contraband. Russell took the personal risk to enter dangerous areas of the wharf in Guayaquil and La Libertad, Ecuador, to photograph and observe the very lax security procedures and the loading of cargo at the docks. Russell singularly devised the defense strategy in this case that resulted in the “not guilty” verdicts for each of the defendants in the second trial.
This trial was considered a slam-dunk winner for the prosecution because of the enormous quantity of drugs and the poor condition of the vessel, which under the government’s theory made it impossible to be engaged in commercial fishing. Although Russell was the only defense counsel to travel outside the country to investigate the case, all of the five defense attorneys ably represented their clients and deserve credit as well. The other four attorneys are Robert Carreido, Charles Guthrie, Julie Blair, and David Bartick.