A federal appeals court in Washington today ruled in favor of the Justice Department in a suit that seeks to force the government to reveal the identity and location of a convicted assassin who has not begun payment on a $7.3 million default judgment tied to the torture and murder of a Chilean diplomat.
The former assassin, Michael Vernon Townley, who served five years in prison for his leadership role in a car bombing that killed Chilean official Orlando Letelier in the District of Columbia in the late 1970s, has been a protected federal witness for more than two decades. Townley cooperated for the government at trial in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, testifying against co-conspirators.
Years after the trial, plaintiffs lawyers sought to connect Townley to other murders. Laura Gonzalez-Vera, the widow of a Chilean man who killed in Chile in 1976, won a $7.3 million default judgment against Townley in 2005. Townley, represented by Dickstein Shapiro lawyers, has not paid a dime to the widow of Carmelo Soria Espinoza.
Lawyers for Gonzalez-Vera say the Justice Department is improperly shielding Townley and that a third-party guardian should be appointed to act as an intermediary to independently review Townley’s finances. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously ruled for DOJ today.
More after the jump.
Justice Department officials said in court papers that the government has taken the required steps to determine whether Townley has made a reasonable effort to begin payment. Government officials who reviewed Townley’s finances concluded it was not unreasonable for him to pay $75 a week. U.S. Marshals Service lawyers told Townley that if he did not take steps to pay up, his identity and location could be divulged.
The department would divulge Townley’s name and location to the guardian, not to Gonzalez-Vera, who is represented by Ali Beydoun, director of the UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation at American University Washington College of Law. Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. ruled in favor of DOJ, saying that a guardian isn’t automatic at this point in the case since the government has taken steps to convince Townley to start paying.
A three-judge panel today of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—Judges Karen LeCraft Henderson and David Tatel heard the case with Senior Judge Stephen Williams—upheld Kennedy’s ruling. Sarah Melikian, a third-year law student in the UNROW clinic, argued for Gonzalez-Vera. Justice Department attorney Abby Wright argued for the government.
The statute at issue in the suit allows a judgment holder to sue for the appointment of a guardian only after the attorney general has made a decision to deny the disclosure of the protected person’s identity. The Justice Department has never refused to disclose Townley’s new name and location, the appeals court said.
“[We] think it clear that Congress intended to make guardianship available only where the Attorney General finds that the protected person is failing to make reasonable efforts—that is, only where disclosure to a guardian is necessary to enforce the judgment,” Tatel wrote in today’s opinion. “We realize this leaves Gonzalez-Vera, though dissatisfied with Townley’s efforts to pay, without a remedy in these proceedings.”
Dickstein Shapiro partner Jeffrey Johnson in Washington was not immediately reached today for comment on the D.C. Circuit opinion.
The appeals court said Gonzalez-Vera and her lawyers are free to ask the Justice Department for an updated assessment of Townley’s financial circumstances.
In a recent interview, Beydoun called the suggestion of additional letters to the Justice Department a futile exercise. "What's going to change with the second or third or fourth letter?" Beydoun said.