HOUSTON (Reuters) – A federal judge on Tuesday threw out the 1983 conviction of former CIA operative Edwin Wilson for selling tons of explosives to Libya, finding that prosecutors knowingly used false testimony and hid evidence that supported his defense.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes’ opinion, written on Monday but made public on Tuesday, vacates Wilson’s conviction for selling 20 tons of C-4 plastic explosives to the Libyan government of Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
Wilson has been in prison since 1982, serving 52 years for three convictions including the arm sales to Libya. His lawyer thinks the 75-year-old prisoner could now be released if the government doesn’t appeal the decision, which was scathing in its condemnation of prosecutorial methods.
Wilson, who ran front companies for the CIA and later parlayed his expertise into a lucrative arms-trading career, argued at his Houston trial that he had been freelancing for the CIA since his 1971 retirement.
Judge Hughes found that U.S. Justice Department prosecutors knew that and nonetheless introduced a false affidavit from a top CIA official saying the agency had not asked Wilson “to perform or provide any services, directly or indirectly.”
“With their knowledge of the nature of Wilson’s work for the CIA, they deliberately deceived the court,” Hughes wrote of the prosecutors.
Wilson’s appeal produced CIA records of at least 40 occasions where he worked for the agency. None showed that the CIA asked him to sell C-4 explosives to Libya, but several showed the agency knew he worked there and asked for his help finding information.
Buying body armor for Iranian security forces, trading weapons or explosives for Soviet military equipment, and securing an anti-tank weapon for an agency operation were just a few of the things Wilson did for the CIA.
“Wilson was not running a Burger King for employees; he was dealing in arms and information for the CIA # the stuff of both espionage and his convictions,” the judge wrote.
Hughes called the false affidavit from the top CIA official # the number three man at the time, Charles Briggs # “nothing but a lie” and noted that the re-reading of it in court convinced the lone juror holding out against conviction to change her mind.
The conviction, then the biggest arms-dealing case in U.S. history, was one of three that federal prosecutors secured against Wilson after his 1982 arrest, leading to 52 years in combined prison sentences.
Wilson was the subject of two books and countless news articles describing his arms-dealing exploits in the 1970s and 1980s, much to the CIA’s embarrassment.
He turned his CIA cover as a rich businessman into a reality, building a $23 million fortune, a string of handsome properties and an arms-dealing career that later proved his undoing.
Hughes’ ruling comes more than three years after Wilson’s court-appointed lawyer, David Adler of Houston, filed the appeal with records culled from Wilson’s initial Freedom of Information Act requests.
Adler, a former CIA case officer who served in Africa, pored over at least 300,000 classified records stored in a Washington, D.C., vault.
“It is an enormous relief to finally be vindicated after so many years of being called a liar by so many officials in the Justice Department,” Wilson said in a statement through Adler.
Adler said the “government’s conduct in Wilson’s case is nothing short of appalling and frightening. I hope the Justice Department holds someone accountable.”
The Justice Department said it had not decided whether to appeal.
Based on sentencing laws in effect at the time of his conviction, Wilson believes he is eligible for release from prison and would be owed the $145,000 fine he paid.