Generals Cleared in Nuns' Deaths, Rapes

Two former Salvadoran generals who retired to Florida were cleared of liability by a jury today in the 1980 rape-murders of four American church women

The federal jury decided that former Salvadoran Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, former head of the Salvadoran National Guard, weren’t responsible for the slayings. The women were killed by Salvadoran troops.

The men were not in the courtroom for the verdict. As the court deputy read the verdicts, there was an audible sigh of disappointment from relatives of the women and the attorneys who brought the civil lawsuit.

After the jury left the courtroom, Kurt Klaus, a lawyer for the generals, turned and extended his hand to Bill Ford, brother of slain nun Ita Ford. The men solemnly shook hands.

“He just said he was sorry for what happened,” Ford said later. Ford said he was surprised by the verdict: “I thought the evidence was overwhelming.”

No Smoking Gun Robert Montgomery, the attorney for the families, said he wasn’t able to prove a solid connection between the deaths and the generals.

“We didn’t have the smoking gun,” he said. “We didn’t have an order from the generals .... We didn’t have anything but circumstantial evidence.”

Jury foreman Bruce Schnirel said the 10 jurors did not believe the former generals had enough control over their troops to be held responsible.

“It was presented to us as such a chaotic time,” said Schnirel, a 50-year-old U.S. Postal Service worker. “There was no way we could say they could control their troops.”

The jury began deliberations Wednesday, three weeks after the wrongful death trial began with photos of the bodies of Ford, nuns Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan flashed on a screen.

Sought $100 Million Their families had asked jurors to award $100 million in compensatory damages plus an unspecified amount in punitive damages. But family members said during the trial that they would be happy to see the generals forced to leave their retirement havens and go back home. They also hoped the outcome of the trial would provide U.S. immigration officials with ammunition to somehow do that.

Lawyers for their families showed jurors numerous declassified documents to illustrate the generals’ failure to stop their soldiers from killing thousands of Salvadorans, including the country’s Roman Catholic archbishop, six Jesuit priests, doctors and peasants.

During the trial, Garcia and Vides Casanova admitted they knew troops were killing innocents, but said there was little they could do to stop the atrocities. Their lawyer showed military-produced videotapes of Garcia asking soldiers to respect the human rights of fellow Salvadorans, and argued that both men were cited for their efforts to bring democracy to the Central American nation.

Five Salvadoran National Guard members were convicted of the Dec. 2, 1980, killings and sentenced to 30 years in Salvadoran prison. The women were apparently killed because military-backed death squads suspected them of sympathizing with leftist guerrillas.

‘The Truth Is Out Now’ The crime caused outrage among many in United States, in part because the U.S. government strongly supported the Salvadoran government during the 1980-1992 civil war.

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 of their whereabouts from a reporter. The families failed in efforts to have the two tried in criminal court in their homeland, so they turned instead to the U.S. courts, filing suit against the men.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley, responding to jurors’ questions, said Garcia and Vides Casanova could be found liable if jurors concluded they knew or should have known that their soldiers were killing civilians and did nothing to stop them.

To find the men liable, the judge said, jurors would have to conclude the men did nothing to stop a pattern of violence and that doing nothing caused the deaths of the Americans.

Sister Madeline Dorsey, who was in El Salvador when her friends were killed, said the trial served a purpose despite the verdict.

“The truth is out now,” she said of civilian massacres in El Salvador during the long civil war. “We knew the truth at the beginning and now the American people know the truth.”