Generals cleared in deaths of women
Four were slain in El Salvador
BY ELINOR J. BRECHER
WEST PALM BEACH -- Two generals from El Salvador, retired more
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
PRAISE FOR LAW
The jury ``followed the law,'' said defense lawyer Klaus. He praised
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
A deflated Bill Ford said the outcome wouldn't affect his family's
commitments, including another suit against the generals.
The pending case involves Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce, a Washington,
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.