General Failure

The bar was too high for the defense in last month's high-profile torture case in West Palm

Despite the emotional testimony, the generals believed they could win again this time. But they claimed to be destitute, so Klaus agreed to a flat rate to finish the case. In all, they paid him about $200,000 for his defense in both cases. By comparison, the plaintiffs' attorneys in last month's trial say they spent more than $500,000 on out-of-pocket expenses alone.

Reached at his daughter's home in Plantation, 69-year-old Garcia says he stuck with Klaus because he couldn't afford anyone better on his $700-a-month pension from El Salvador. "The problem is money. I didn't have enough money to find another attorney."

The difference in the two sides' preparation was immediately apparent when the trial started. The three torture victims had on their side a team of lawyers, law students, and experts. Their lawyers handed jurors a four-inch-thick binder of all the exhibits. A mess of cables connected the plaintiffs' computers with a mainframe in the back of the courtroom. On cue from the plaintiffs' attorneys, an expert in the back row clicked through a slide projection of exhibits.

Kurt Klaus Jr. identifies with a "climate 
of violence"
Steve Satterwhite
Kurt Klaus Jr. identifies with a "climate of violence"

Klaus handed the jury canary-yellow envelopes with a few photocopies of his evidence. His desk was clean and neat every day, dotted only with his aging leather briefcase, a legal pad, and, sometimes, the day's exhibits. He had no computer-enhanced slides and often stumbled over questions, facing frequent objections.

His three-day defense included only three witnesses, the two defendants and former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Edwin Corr, who testified that the generals helped improve human rights. With Vides on the stand, Klaus tried to enter an exhibit written in Spanish with an English translation attached. The plaintiffs' attorneys objected, claiming that the document wasn't completely translated, and Klaus withdrew it. His daughter had translated the text, he said.

Later, Klaus tried to enter pamphlets the generals allegedly distributed to soldiers to urge them to respect citizens' human rights. When the plaintiffs pointed out that the pamphlets were printed in 1994, long after the generals retired in 1989, Klaus pulled them.

When U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley called on Klaus to question Garcia late on a Monday, Klaus fished through some papers, asked the judge for a moment, and then sheepishly admitted he wasn't ready. The judge agreed to end early that day.

Most embarrassing for Klaus, Hurley repeatedly chastised the Miami lawyer for failing to ask questions correctly. Several times, the judge explained how to phrase questions. "Mr. Klaus, a leading question is a question that provides an answer," Hurley said. "And this is direct examination. And you need to ask a question that doesn't provide an answer."

After the trial, one of the opposing lawyers, James K. Green of West Palm Beach, even compared Klaus to television's Columbo, implying that the simpleton style was meant to garner the jury's sympathy. "It's a real danger to underestimate this guy," Green said. "He knew if he engaged us at our level, we would grind him into the ground, so he took the little-guy approach."

At the end of his defense, Klaus called 64-year-old Vides to the stand, in part to refute an Organization of American States report claiming that secret torture cells of the El Salvadoran national guard were controlled by the two generals. Klaus hoped to prove that the report was written before the two generals took control.

"Mr. Vides, was the report written in 1977?" he asked. Green objected, and the judge again reminded Klaus not to ask leading questions.

Klaus tried to rephrase it but again provided the date. After another reminder, he tried unsuccessfully a third time. He finally sat down in frustration. "Nothin' further," he said, ending his case.

The other side closed its case by asking petite Neris Gonzalez to take off her shoe to show the jurors two-decade-old scars from the torture she endured. The jury took 20 hours to assign a dollar figure to the torture: $14.6 million to compensate the three victims for their ordeal and $40 million to punish the generals.

It wasn't the ending that Columbo would've planned.

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