Jury Weighs Role of Generals in Nuns' Deaths

Two ex-Salvadorans generals who retired to American soil after reigning over a military that killed four U.S. church women in 1980 may have to pay big for the deaths.

Twenty years after the killings, a U.S. District Court jury will decide if former Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, former head of the Salvadoran National Guard, are liable and owe the womens’ families $100 million.

Nuns Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, both of New York, and nun Dorothy Kazel and missionary Jean Donovan, both of Cleveland, were abducted at a military checkpoint on Dec. 2, 1980, then raped and killed by Salvadoran soldiers. Their dumped bodies were found roadside the next day.

Jury deliberations in the case were set to continue this morning. Lawyers for both sides completed closing arguments on Wednesday afternoon.

The civil jury of 10 must determine whether Garcia and Vides Casanova, in their positions of power, could have prevented the deaths or done more to investigate the killings and punish the perpetrators.

Bystanders or Collaborators?

During the three-week trial, Garcia and Vides Casanova admitted they knew troops were killing innocents, but said there was little they could do to stop the atrocities.

Through declassified U.S. documents, testimony from a former U.S. ambassador and various commission reports on the slayings, lawyers for the families have painted a picture of two military leaders who failed to investigate numerous killings of religious and political figures committed by troops.

The lawyer for the generals, Kurt Klaus, said Wednesday both men were put into positions of power by leaders of a government junta working toward democracy in El Salvador. His clients wanted the same, Klaus said.

“Both were put into their positions at the behest of the people who started the reforms,” Klaus said during his closing argument. “That’s who their allegiance was to, not the people who were trying to keep the country in a backward existence. To hold my clients responsible escapes all reason, all logic, all common sense.”

But lawyers for the families of the victims say the men did nothing to stop the killings of the church women, thousands of Salvadorans, an archbishop, six Jesuit priests, doctors and peasants.

“By their very nature of ignoring the horrible brutality, their failure to punish, their failure to have one order to the troops under them speaks so loudly to their guilt,” Robert Montgomery Jr., a lawyer for the families, told the jury on Wednesday.

Garcia, 67, and Vides Casanova, 62, retired to Florida in 1989 and were granted U.S. residency because they had never been convicted of a crime. Garcia said he was fleeing death threats.

They lived quietly in middle-class neighborhoods until families of the slain women learned they were here from a reporter. The families failed in efforts to have the two tried in criminal court in their homeland.

Lawyers for the families are not seeking specific punitive damages in the case. Montgomery, who set the $100 million compensatory damages request, said he wants the jury to decide the amount of punitive damages based on their outrage over the case.