The Miami Herald
November 4, 2000

Generals cleared in deaths of women

 Four were slain in El Salvador


 WEST PALM BEACH -- Two generals from El Salvador, retired more than a
 decade in Florida, were not responsible for the murders of four American
 churchwomen in that country 20 years ago, a civil jury found Friday in federal

 A single word convinced 10 jurors that the churchwomen's survivors couldn't
 legally blame the generals whose subordinates raped and killed the women on
 Dec. 2, 1980.

 That word was ``effective,'' as in ``effective command.'' The concept undergirds one
 of several legal criteria that the families had to meet before the jury of six women
 and four men could find the generals liable in the atrocity: an event that threw the
 harsh light of public scrutiny on the Reagan administration's controversial Latin
 America policy.

 It was a time of political mayhem and primitive communications in El Salvador,
 jury foreman Bruce Schnirel, a Lake Worth postal worker, explained outside the

 ``We couldn't get past that,'' said Schnirel, 50. ``El Salvador was presented at that
 time as in chaos, with different factions that had different [degrees of] control.
 There was no way [the generals] could control all the events.''

 Neither José Guillermo García, 67, nor Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 62, was
 in court to hear the verdict.

 ``I always had faith,'' said García, who was reached Friday at his Plantation home.
 ``I always had confidence in God. My gratitude is to God and to all the people
 whose prayers helped this outcome.''

 Defense lawyer Kurt R. Klaus Jr. of Miami gave Vides' wife the news over the
 phone. He said she was ``thankful.''

 The civil trial began with jury selection on Oct. 10 and ended about 11 a.m.
 Friday, less than two hours into the second day of deliberations.

 The slain women's relatives, alongside representatives of the Lawyers Committee
 for Human Rights, which sponsored the suit, sat dumbstruck as the verdict
 resounded through U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley's tensely silent

 Maryknoll Sister Madeline Dorsey, 82, who'd worked with the four women to aid
 El Salvador's poor and oppressed, and was among the last to see them alive,
 closed her eyes and prayed silently.

 Though unanimous, the verdict was not reached without emotion and intense
 discussion, jurors said.


 ``We really felt for the nuns'' -- Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and lay
 missionary Jean Donovan -- ``and all of us were drained by this,'' Schnirel said.
 ``But the evidence, and the way it was explained to us how the written
 instructions had to be applied to it'' meant the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden
 of proof.

 Precisely that construction arose in several jurors' questions to Hurley on
 Thursday, as they struggled with the concept of command responsibility. To
 establish liability, was it necessary for the plaintiffs to prove that the generals
 knew precisely whom their violent subordinates were targeting? Or was it
 sufficient to prove that they knew -- or should have known about, or tried to stop,
 or punish -- generalized heinous acts among their troops?

 Plaintiffs' lawyers Bob Kerrigan of Pensacola and co-counsel Bob Montgomery of
 Palm Beach argued the latter. Defense attorney Klaus argued the former. Hurley
 agreed with the plaintiffs' perspective, but more than a half-hour of explanation
 Thursday didn't seem to clarify the issue for the jury, which included an executive,
 a supermarket manager, a city-beautification official, and at least one military

 Kerrigan said he probably will ask for a new trial.

 García was defense minister in El Salvador when the women disappeared. Vides,
 who lives in Palm Coast, was National Guard director.

 Guardsmen detained the women at or near the San Salvador airport on Dec. 2.
 On Dec. 3, associates spotted their burned-out Toyota van on the airport road. By
 then, they'd been raped and shot.

 Peasants buried them, then, under the outraged eye of U.S. Ambassador Robert
 White, hauled them out of shallow graves with ropes on Dec. 4. White testified
 that the women's deaths -- and those of other church leaders -- were meant to
 intimidate anyone seeking justice for the poor.

 The plaintiffs argued that the Salvadoran military command had created a culture
 that sanctioned unfettered sadism and repression. This, said the families, was the
 generals' fault. They supported their accusations with dozens of declassified U.S.

 The defense argued that the generals were waging Washington's war against
 Marxist insurgents.

 Four guardsmen and their unit leader received 30-year prison terms in 1984 for the
 murders. Salvadoran authorities released three in 1998; the others remain

 ``I found the generals' testimony very sincere,'' said juror Robert Morrow, 53, a
 retired newspaper editor who lives in West Palm Beach. At the first straw vote
 Friday, he said, ``we were all in agreement.''

 While he felt ``sorry that the women were killed,'' Morrow said ``they were no more
 important than anyone else who died'' during a 12-year civil war that cost 75,000


 The jury ``followed the law,'' said defense lawyer Klaus. He praised the 1992
 federal Torture Victim Protection Act, under which the representatives of the
 women's estates brought suit as ``a good law. I hope it works to do what it was
 designed to do: keep these kinds'' -- he quickly corrected himself -- ``hold those
 who commit acts of torture and extrajudicial killing responsible for them.''

 One relative, Bill Ford, a trial lawyer who is Ita Ford's brother, pursued the killers
 and their superiors for two decades. He said Friday that Klaus had offered to
 settle the suit weeks ago for $15,000, which the families rejected.

 They'd asked for $25 million each in compensatory and unspecified punitive

 A deflated Bill Ford said the outcome wouldn't affect his family's human-rights
 commitments, including another suit against the generals.

 The pending case involves Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce, a Washington, D.C.,
 surgeon who claims he was tortured in rural El Salvador while doing relief work in
 December 1980, and an anonymous pregnant woman who was tortured and
 whose baby later died.

 ``We have an obligation to continue what she and the other women did in our own
 way, otherwise it would be a violation of what they lived and died for,'' Bill Ford

 Herald researcher Elisabeth Donovan contributed to this report.