The trial of a Texan at the center of one of the biggest cocaine busts in Utah history ended in a hung jury Tuesday and may be over for good.
Jorge Luis Orendain, El Paso, was arrested on drug trafficking charges on April 17, 1996, after a Utah Highway Patrol trooper found more than 550 pounds of cocaine hidden under a false floor in the bed of his flatbed pickup truck.Orendain was traveling along Utah's most notorious drug route - I-70 in Sevier County - when UHP trooper Lance Bushnell noticed he was weaving from lane to lane and that his truck had a broken tail light.
While writing out a citation, Bushnell became suspicious of some of Orendain's responses and requested permission to search the vehicle. Orendain agreed, and the trooper discovered the false compartment beneath the 1995 Chevy flatbed.
At the trial, the drug cache was estimated to have a street value of more than $17 million.
Orendain insisted that he bought the truck from a friend for $10,000 and knew nothing about the cocaine. The question of whether he was aware of the drugs became the central issue in the trial.
"Some jurors apparently believed he had knowledge, and some believed he didn't," said defense attorney Randy Ludlow.
After debating it for almost five hours, the 12 jurors said they couldn't reach a unanimous verdict, forcing U.S. District Chief Judge David Sam to declare a mistrial.
While prosecutors have the option of seeking another trial, they face a new and possibly insurmountable problem. On the same day that Orendain was being tried on the 21-month-old charges, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ordered federal courts to abide by the Speedy Trial Act.
The precedent-setting ruling came in an unrelated drug trafficking case involving a woman who was caught with a bundle of heroin at the Salt Lake International Airport in 1996. Her case languished before a U.S. magistrate for almost a year. The Speedy Trial Act says a criminal defendant is generally entitled to a trial within 70 days of indictment.
Ruling that the act applies to magistrates as well as federal judges, the appeals court reversed the conviction of Maria Luisa Mora.
Ludlow said his client's case also languished in magistrate's court far beyond the 70-day limit.
"The magistrate had the documentation to complete his report and recommendation sometime in September 1996, but there was no ruling until June 1997," Ludlow said, adding that Orendain has been imprisoned the entire time.
Based on the appeals court ruling, Ludlow said he will seek to have the charges against Orendain dismissed.
Meanwhile, Mora's lawyer, Stephen McCaughey, said the delays in the two magistrates' courts in Utah indicate a need for either an additional magistrate or fewer referrals to the magistrates from the federal judges.
"This has been a steady problem in Utah over the past three or four years," McCaughey said. "We (defense lawyers) file motions to suppress evidence, and then we don't hear anything for 10 or 11 months."
U.S. District Court Clerk Markus Zimmer said Tuesday that the court is evaluating the problem and considering the possibility of requesting another full- or part-time magistrate.