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Can the “Merchant of Death” Get a Fair Trial?

Municipal reporters covering the police beat often hear the common complaint about the “CSI effect”–that juries (and the curious public) expect criminal prosecutions to include every form of DNA evidence they would see on the show. David French wrote about how this might have been applicable in the acquittal of Casey Anthony, whose murder trial “was notable for its strong circumstantial evidence and serious lack of conclusive forensics.”

But there is another modern contrivance increasingly invading courtrooms: the “Google effect.” And it’s worrying Judge Shira Scheindlin, who is presiding over the trial of alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death”:

Portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the film “Lord of War,” targeted by the United Nations, and finally extradited to New York after a U.S. sting operation in Thailand, Bout has his own Wikipedia page and nearly half a million Google search entries.

Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin said that this could be “a major problem” in making sure that the jury trial, which starts October 11, is fair.

“I’m concerned too,” she told defense lawyers at a pretrial hearing in New York. “This is an easy case to Google. All you have to do is get the spelling right.”

Bout has been phenomenally successful, building up his business in his early 20s (he’s now 43) by supplying the Northern Command in Afghanistan in the 1990s while also selling weapons to the Alliance’s enemy, the Taliban. As Bout’s biographers Douglas Farah and Steven Braun have written, Africa has provided plenty of well-paying customers over the years, from Angola and Zaire to Charles Taylor’s Liberia and Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya. We, too, have used Bout’s services:

But it was the same access to rogue aircraft in growing swaths of ungoverned spaces in Africa and Afghanistan that made him useful to the governments that were pursuing him. Need supplies for U.S. troops flown into Baghdad in 2003 when U.S. forces lacked airlift capacity? Bout’s planes were available. Need to fly emergency food aid into the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Bout had the planes and pilots. From gladiolas to frozen chicken to AK-47s, Bout was the deliveryman par excellence.

One of the smartest–and most dangerous–moves Vladimir Putin made when he brought his fellow siloviki to power in Russia was to co-opt Bout and get him working for the Kremlin. But this created something of a paper trail, and when Bout was found delivering weapons to Hezbollah as they prepared for their 2006 war with Israel, he was ostensibly doing so on behalf of Putin (or at least Putin’s powerful deputy, Igor Sechin). So when Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008–American agents were posing as weapons buyers on behalf of the Colombian FARC terrorist group–Russia insisted Bout not be extradited to the U.S. But he was, and he now awaits a trial in New York expected to begin next month.

His attorneys’ anxiety over jury bias is well founded. I’m not quite sure at what point the “Google effect” kicks in, but I would wager that if you’re known as the “Merchant of Death” and Nicolas Cage has played you in a major studio action film, a fair trial is a reasonable concern. But he should get it, because a trial meant to untangle the web of Bout’s career will illuminate the mostly hidden world of the illicit global weapons trade. And that will be even better than a movie.


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