Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009 | At some point, Alfred Koonin turned from witness to suspect.
For years, he cooperated with FBI agents as they investigated a failed murder-for-hire plot that spanned two continents. He gave multiple statements to investigators and even testified about what he said he knew in front of a grand jury: that a friend in South Africa asked him to pick up a business associate at the Los Angeles airport and give him a place to stay.
Prosecutors, though, eventually came to believe that Koonin gave the man, Valter Nebiolo, more than a couch to sleep on. They charged Koonin with conspiracy, perjury, aiding and abetting a murder-for-hire and extortion, alleging that he provided the gun that Nebiolo used to try and kill a La Jolla real estate broker after being hired by Koonin’s friend.
Koonin, who maintains his innocence, was convicted in 2001 after a short trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison, three more years than Nebiolo received after pleading guilty and testifying against him. The friend, Ronald Abel, a South African lawyer and mastermind of the entire plot, has escaped prosecution.
The case attracted a barrage of media attention, particularly in South Africa, as appeals revolving around complex legal technicalities stretched to the U.S. Supreme Court and back. But now, in the eighth year of his sentence, out of money and out of lawyers (he’s had five), Koonin has filed a petition in federal court that he wrote with the help of another inmate, asking to have his sentence overturned.
It’s likely one of his last chances to convince a judge that his version of events — that he was an unwitting participant in a friend’s scheme — is true and that he should be released.