General Failure

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

Kurt Klaus Jr. had good reason to get the hell out of West Palm Beach. On a blazing hot Tuesday, he tucked a modest stack of papers and folders under his left arm and bolted for his Toyota Tundra, which was parked under a tree across from the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach. He blew off television cameras waiting for a statement, stopping only briefly after reporters caught up with him in the middle turning lane of Banyan Street. Cars whizzed by on both sides of the five-lane road.

"I'm disappointed," Klaus said after crossing Banyan. Then he hung his hunter-green jacket in the truck, which matched the color of his suit. "I wish I would've done a better job."

A better job? Yeah, Klaus has had better days. A few minutes earlier, a jury had ordered his clients, two former El Salvadoran generals who retired to Florida, to cough up $54.6 million in a landmark legal case the Miami attorney soundly lost. The jury sided with three weeping torture victims and a team of experts who said the generals ordered the murder, rape, and systematic torture of tens of thousands of their countrymen. In front-page stories published in the Washington Post, all the major South Florida dailies, and papers in Europe and South America, human rights experts said the case could encourage the half-million victims of torture now living in the United States to run for the courthouse. They called it a "David-against-Goliath battle."

What's odd is that they painted Kurt Klaus as the Philistine giant.

Klaus, a 48-year-old, square-shouldered Philadelphia native with professorially gray hair, was out of his element as soon as he stepped into the West Palm courtroom on June 24. During a 22-year legal career, Klaus has spent most of his time arranging divorces and wills in a one-man law office. His cases had never made even the local press. He took the retired generals' side as a favor to one of them, Jose Garcia, a family friend who now lives in Plantation.

Would Johnnie Cochran have won this one? Maybe with the slogan "If the jackboots don't fit, you must acquit." Who knows? Though money can buy you innocence in a courtroom, in this case, the relatively modest amount the generals paid got them no hired legal experts, few courtroom exhibits, and an often-bumbling attorney.

After returning the multimillion-dollar verdict, jury foreman Arnie Esbin called Klaus ill-prepared and said the lawyer presented a weak case with shabby exhibits. "Everything seemed to be spur-of-the-moment," Esbin said. "There should have been a firm of people rather than a one-man shop."

The most significant thing about Klaus's loss is that it could send false messages. The case was one of only a few filed under the 1992 Torture Victim Protection Act, which gives victims of torture the right to sue in the United States for crimes committed in other countries. In the past, plaintiffs have won lawsuits against military leaders who didn't live in the United States and mounted no defense, including Guatemalan Minister of Defense Hector Gramajo and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. "One message to commanders now is that they have to take this law seriously," says Sandra Colliver, executive director of the Center for Justice and Accountability, the San Francisco-based nonprofit group that filed the suit.

Klaus, who earned a law degree from Nova Southeastern University in 1979, began working for Garcia and fellow ex-general Carlos Vides of Palm Coast two years ago when they faced a similar legal challenge. The Ohio family of two nuns and a missionary who were raped and murdered in El Salvador in 1980 claimed that the generals had ordered the brutal executions.

Klaus says he agreed to represent the generals because his Colombian-born wife, Clara, and Garcia's daughter, Marta, have been friends since they took college classes together 14 years ago. Klaus says he identifies with the "climate of violence" in El Salvador; over the past three decades, guerrillas in Colombia have murdered his wife's father and two uncles. Though he had no experience with human rights cases or the Torture Victim Protection Act, Klaus agreed to represent the generals, communicating with them only in poor "Spanglish," which he speaks with a nasal, Philadelphia twang. "I figured it's really just a tort case. It's not that complicated."

In the first lawsuit, a cadre of lawyers ended the 14-day trial by asking a jury to award the families of the slain women $100 million. But perhaps because the murdering soldiers were stationed in a remote outpost, the jury took two days to conclude that the generals hadn't been in "effective command" of the troops -- which is the standard of proof required under the 1992 torture act. After the jury cleared them back then, one juror told a reporter that Klaus had earned sympathy for fighting a team of lawyers by himself.  

Last month's case against the generals was stronger. It involved the torture of three Salvadorans in police stations and army headquarters where the two generals frequently worked. And there was testimony by survivors. The jury heard from Neris Gonzalez, a then-pregnant church worker who was raped continually and shoved against the carcass of a boy she had seen murdered; Carlos Mauricio, a college professor who was beaten and starved; and Juan Romagoza, a doctor whose fingers were squeezed until he could no longer use them for surgery. Romagoza claimed that he twice saw Garcia, with his pressed pants and shiny belt buckle, in the camp, where victims would scream day and night as they were tortured.

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.

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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