TVPA Lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court Over the Murders of the American Churchwomen

One of the horrendous crimes during El Salvador’s civil war was the December 1980 brutal murders of four American churchwomen. We have examined the facts of those crimes along with the investigations and criminal prosecutions in El Salvador for those crimes plus the report on same by the Truth Commission for El Salvador.[1]

General Vides Casanova
General Jose Guillermo Garcia

In 1999 U.S. relatives of the four churchwomen brought a civil lawsuit for money damages under the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA)[2] for the women’s torture and murders. The defendants were former Salvadoran Generals Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia. The case was in a federal court in Florida, where the defendants then lived.[3]

The case was tried before a jury in October-November 2000. The defendants denied any knowledge of the murders beforehand. They admitted, however, that torture and violence were rampant in El Salvador and that the country’s armed forces were involved in many of these actions. In response, they testified, they had issued orders forbidding illegal interrogation and extrajudicial executions and had done all they could do to prevent such crimes. However, they further testified, they did not have the resources to stop a long practice of such actions by the armed forces.[4]

General Garcia testified that he had ordered an investigation of the killing of the churchwomen and had done nothing to interfere with the investigation. General Garcia also testified about the U.S. government’s giving him the Legion of Merit award in the 1980’s for his being a “sterling example of a military leader in a representative government”as well as the U.S. government’s granting him political asylum in 1991.

Other trial witnesses were former U.S. Ambassador Robert White to El Salvador and a former investigator for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The trial exhibits included the report of the El Salvador Truth Commission, other investigative reports and declassified U.S. diplomatic cables

In November 2000 the jury returned a verdict for the defendants. Afterwards the jurors indicated that they thought they did not have enough evidence that the generals were able to exercise authority over their subordinates. Some jurors also said the defendants had done what they could to curb abuses, given the tumult of the times and a lack of resources.

The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court. The sole issue on this appeal was the legal sufficiency of the trial court’s instruction to the lay jury on the question of command responsibility. Because there was no objection at trial to this instruction, the appellate court reviewed the instruction only for plain error and found no such plain error,

The appellate court held that legislative history made clear that Congress intended to adopt the doctrine of command responsibility from international law and that the essential elements of liability under that doctrine were (i) the existence of a superior-subordinate relationship between the commander and the perpetrator; (ii) the commander knew or should have known that the subordinate was committing or planning to commit war crimes; and (iii) the commander failed to prevent the crimes or failed to punish the subordinate for same.

The plaintiffs’ request for review by the U.S. Supreme Court was denied. Thus, this case is over.[5]


[1]  See Post: The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 12, 2011); Post: The December 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 14, 2011); Post: Non-Judicial Investigations of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen (Dec. 16, 2011); Post: Judicial Investigations and Criminal Prosecutions of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 18, 2011); Post: The Salvadoran Truth Commission’s Investigation of the Murders of the American Churchwomen (Dec. 19, 2011).

[2]  See Post: The Torture Victims Protection Act (Dec. 10, 2011).

[3]  Ford v. Garcia, 289 F.3d 1283, 1285 (11th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1147 (2003).

[4]  Gonzalez, Salvadoran Admits Abuses In Trial Tied to Nuns’ Deaths, N.Y. Times (Oct. 19, 2000); Gonzalez, Salvadoran General Admits He Knew of Abuses, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2000); Gonzalez, 2 Salvadoran Generals Cleared by U.S. Jury in Nuns’ Deaths, N.Y. Times (Nov. 4, 2000); Eviatar, Following the Blood, American Lawyer, Jan. 2001, at 83.

[5] The problem with the jury instruction on command responsibility was avoided in a later and similar case against Generals Garcia and Vides Casanova in which they were held liable for $54.6 million. (See Post: Former Salvadoran Generals Held Liable by U.S. Courts for $54.6 Million for Failure To Stop Torture (Nov. 11, 2011).)

Published by

dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

6 thoughts on “TVPA Lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court Over the Murders of the American Churchwomen”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s