United States v. Berkan – Puerto Rico – CCR Docket 1981-1982

Vieques is a beautiful, tiny island a few miles off the south­ eastern coast of Puerto Rico. There in May 1979, 21 people, including three clergymen – one a Roman Catholic bishop ­ five attorneys, a fisherman and a school teacher, were arrested while participating in an ecumenical protest ser­vice held on land claimed by the Navy. Seventeen of  the 21 were convicted and sentenced to prison, some for the max­imum of six months. Judith Berkan, Bishop Antulio Parilla Bonilla, Salvador Tio and William Andres Trevathan appealed their convictions and were represented by CCR attorneys.

The people of Vieques have struggled for years to get the United States Navy, which occupies four-fifths of the island.off their land and out of their waters. Dozens of Viequenses have been killed or maimed as a result of the daily practice bombings in the hills and the amphibious landings on the beaches. The death in a Florida prison of Angel Rodriguez Cristobal, a 31-year-old farmer, father of two and one of those convicted for taking part in the protest, is the island’s latest tragedy. Cristobal, sent to Tallahassee to serve his six-month sentence, was “found hanging” in his cell with a four-.inch cut on his face and multiple bruises on his body. Many Puerto Ricans reject the official finding of suicide, charging the government with murder. Investigations of the incident are continuing.

While the appeals were being prepared, Lt. Alex de la Zerda, the Navy Liaison officer for Vieques, was arrested for bombing the Puerto Rican Bar Association and for participat­ing in a conspiracy “to intimidate and oppress members of the Bar Association, the National Lawyers Guild and the Legal Services Corporation of Puerto Rico, because of “past representation of Vieques demonstrators.” A key prosecution witness at all the “Vieques 21” trials, de la Zerda’s credibility was thus cast into doubt. CCR attorneys filed motions for a new trial with the District Court and again called for the disqualification of Judge Torruella. Torruella, who during the year was labeled the worst Judge in the First Circuit, denied all of the motions, a decision which we then appealed to the First Circuit.

In May , the convictions were reversed and the charges were dismissed. This decision is important because the court questioned whether the United States owns the Vieques beaches where Berkan and others demonstrated . As there was insufficient proof of U.S. ownership , defendants could not be convicted of trespassing on naval land. For Berkan, the only appellant facing jail, the victory was particularly sweet. The reversal also took away the main reason the district court may come up with for refusing to admit Berkan to federal practice in Puerto Rico.

Michael Ratner, Margaret Ratner, Doris Peterson and Jose Antonio Lugo with Harry Anduze Montano and Roberto Breso Calderon