This Day in Legal History – May 4th

On May 4th, 1989, the the District Court of D.C. convicted Oliver North of obstructing the congressional Iran-Contra investigation and the destruction of government documents. While North was eventually acquitted of all 3 counts, the publicity of the case and the ensuing political polarization ensured that this day would go down in legal history.

In November of 1986, a Lebanese newspaper exposed the sale of U.S. weapons to Iran, which North and his successor John Poindexter had orchestrated. Subsequent investigations revealed that the sale had been used to finance the Nicaraguan Contra guerillas in their rebellion against their country’s leftist government. North was called to testify before Congress in July of 1987 and admitted to lying to Congress.

That televised congressional hearing ensured that North’s conviction in the District Court of D.C. did not stand. The Court of Appeals dismissed all three convictions in 1990, citing the immunity to prosecution that Congress had granted him for his public testimony. It being impossible to prove that the court was not influenced by his immunized testimony, the convictions could not stand. The Court of Appeals’ decision also created speculation about the Reagan administration’s culpability in the scandal. Its refusal to declassify documents vital to the proceedings deprived North of a fair trial, ultimately contributing to the dismissal of his convictions.

The American public continues to both lionize and demonize North for masterminding Iran-Contra. But what is the true legacy of his acquittal? You guessed it: he has since made several appearances on the hit TV sitcom JAG. That honor was almost stolen from him on this day in legal history: May 4th, 1989.

Background on the Iran-Contra Scandal

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