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General Failure

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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton

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