A Friar Goes Before the Judge

Louie Vitale, OFM Friar News

Our trial began Jan. 30. Since I was still at Muscogee County Jail together with Priscilla Treska (mother of 15, whose story is in the Feb. 17 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, pages 9-10), we were taken in custody (handcuffs and leg shackles) to court. The group of 37 defendants had been broken down, as it was not a large courtroom.

Priscilla and I were taken first of those pleading in our category. Mine was “not guilty while stipulating” the facts of our trespass. We still claimed that this was the only way we could bring the need to close the School of the Americas to the height necessary to affect its closure.

I was the last of the morning group. Unfortunately, I was processed just before lunch was scheduled. After brief presentations by my lawyer and the prosecutor (both the U.S. Attorney and military representative, in this case the military lawyer represented both), the judge found me guilty.

He then turned to sentencing. He asked if I wanted to make a statement (he calls this “allocutions”). Of course I did. It was suggested we speak 5-10 minutes. I practiced this many times, but Judge Faircloth, while known for giving maximum punitive sentences, can also be very open to comment, even engaging at times, and seemingly encouraging. Someone said I was on for 40 minutes. (I was fasting, so did not notice the delayed lunch.)

I began by reminding the judge of my testimony in 2002. I had not planned on getting arrested then (November 2001) as there was a new fence that prevented the past practice of processing right on to the base. But I had been extremely moved by hearing the names of those martyred and murdered in Latin America: Archbishop Oscar Romero; the three sisters and lay companion raped, massacred and buried on the way home from the airport; the six Jesuits, their lay associates and her daughter massacred at their house at the University of Central America in the middle of the night; and villagers whom I had met or whose survivors I had heard in refugee camps.

These were personal accounts and experiences I had gained through the ’80s and even to the present. We also had become aware that most of the military agents of these and so many other massacres in Latin America (even to Plan Colombia and the drug wars of South America) were trained at the S.O.A. in the means of torture as means to expand the economic, political and military goals of the U.S. By the time the procession arrived at the gate, I felt a desperate need to continue onto Fort Benning and be as close as I could to the School of the Americas located there to bring the cry of the poor, the massacred and martyred to the attention of the world.

I recalled Sister Ita Ford (one of the martyred Maryknoll Sisters) organizing a prayer service for a concluding retreat for her Maryknoll Sisters gathered in Nicaragua. The night before their attack and murder, she reminded them of the words of Archbishop Romero, whose assassination preceded theirs by a few months, but whose invitation still brought them to El Salvador.

Archbishop Romero reminded them (and us) that to be a Christian means to share the lot of the poor and this meant to be captured, tortured, disappeared or found dead. That very next night, those prophetic words were fulfilled in their lives, as they had been for Archbishop Romero and would later for the Jesuits and so many others.

I then (are my 10 minutes up yet?) spoke of my experience serving time at Nellis Prison Camp in Las Vegas, where the Air Force was preparing for the attack on Iraq with daily live-bomb runs at the Nellis range (co-extensive with the Nevada Test Site, so familiar to many of us); that I had spent those months in the midst of the weapons storage (including nuclear weapons) and had watched the planes and the bombs (including nuclear weapons trucks) head out to Iraq. We came to realize that the attack was posing as a response to the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Towers – later to be exposed as misinformation – that there was no connection between Iraq and the 9-11 attack – nor any evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (though clear evidence of WMDs under our beds at Nellis Federal Prison Camp!).

I also (out of time yet?) noted that we were now aware that the torture manuals used by the School of the Americas (and other U.S. training programs for Latin American military), while translated into Spanish, were also used in English by our own military – as was exposed in the notorious prison Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, as well as through our surrogate partners in Europe, especially extremely repressive regimes in former Soviet Union countries. Those of us witnessing insist that we must not cross the line of accepting torture – by our client states (as In Latin America) or surely our own military.

I noted that the premier School of the Americas was perhaps the most visible place to raise this witness, as 20,00 gathered to protest such torture and massacre as a means of imperial expansion.

Finally, I recalled a child named Walter whose family Brother Ed Dunn, OFM, had known in El Salvador. Walter, a 12-year-old with Down’s syndrome, was massacred as one of the victims. Ed knew of the senior officer (an S.O.A. grad) and found it impossible to forgive him, until he had a dream vision of Walter forgiving the officer himself.

I also spoke of the four Christian Peacemaker witnesses who are being held hostage in Iraq (ironically they had exposed the evils of Abu Ghraib) for the release of Iraqi prisoners, and of a child who commented, “I hope they can become friends” (as Fr. Lawrence Jenco had done with his captors in Lebanon). I spoke, in the spirit of St. Francis, that our goal was not just to close the S.O.A. but to achieve reconciliation – to restore “the beloved community.”

I concluded with the prayer accredited to St. Francis but actually written at the end of the first World War at the initiation of Pope Benedict XIII to bring reconciliation to those involved in the war: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.”

The judge listened to the end and then sentenced me to six months in prison! We had pleaded a “vow of poverty” so he did not give a fine (nor did he for poverty workers, etc.). I had a letter from Mel Jurisich, OFM, our Provincial, indicating my desire to get out as soon as possible to be with my brother Ed Dunn, who was dying. The judge offered me “own recognizance” – release to go to California before going to prison and told me to come back the next day and give him an answer.

I pondered and prayed and stuck to my desire to get out as soon as possible. He had given Priscilla credit for the 72 days we had served in Muscogee County Jail since Nov. 20. So he gave me the “Priscilla discount.” I was taken back to Muscogee County Jail for the other half of my sentence. The next day, they transported me away to Crisp County Jail, and here I am!

I might stay here these last three months, be moved to another less crowded jail in Georgia (with a contract with the Feds) or be moved to a Federal Camp in California.

But I am fine here, so we shall see.

Your brother, Louie

If you would like to write Louie, mail your letter to: Fr. Louis Vitale, Crisp County Jail, 196 South Highway 300, Cordele GA 31015.