Fired Honduran judge says officials block justice U.S. murder defendant being denied his day in court, she charges

December 12, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- A former Honduran judge, breaking a wall of official silence, says the country's judicial officials have engaged in an "obvious obstruction of justice" against an American who has languished nearly five years in prison here, awaiting trial on a murder charge.

The judge, who presided over the case against Gus Valle, a former Miami resident, for 10 months before being fired, said judicial officials deliberately slowed the progress of the case to a snail's pace to keep Valle from going to court to present his argument of self-defense.

"The scales of justice are tipped against Valle," the former circuit court judge, Mildred Budde, told the Miami Herald. "What is happening to him isn't fair."

Valle is charged with the murder of a Honduran meat salesman named Luis Canales during a 1993 shootout in a dusty farming town north of here. He says he acted in self-defense against a hired killer employed by conspirators who wanted to seize his 150-acre farm. Arrested the day of the shooting, he has been held without bail ever since.

The Valle case was turned over to Budde after a previous judge was charged with forging documents in the case and a second recused herself in the wake of an unfavorable report on her conduct by the Honduran human rights prosecutor.

Budde said she knew little about the case but immediately sensed something was strange when it took her four months just to pry the case files loose from the previous judge.

"When I began going over the files, there was a pattern of needless delays," she said. "In Honduras, when someone powerful has a personal stake in a case, they get the judge to stick it in a drawer. That's what happened here."

Previous judges in the case, she said, disregarded all the BTC timetables set forth in Honduran law to ensure a speedy trial. They denied obviously legitimate motions by Valle's lawyer, she said, forcing proceedings to stop for lengthy appeals through the cumbersome Honduran court system.

The previous judges also rejected all evidence in support of Valle's claim of self-defense, Budde said. She believes it was her reversal of those rulings, permitting most of the evidence to be introduced into the trial, that led to her dismissal.

Budde's charges are the latest in a long series of irregularities -- including forged documents and fabricated evidence -- in a case that is an intensifying source of anger for the State Department as well as a growing number of members of Congress.

At least three letters from members of Congress have been sent to Honduran President Carlos Reina in the past six months protesting Valle's treatment, including one signed by seven senators and representatives that accused Honduran authorities of "serious judicial misconduct."

But none of the letters has gotten anything more than "a pro-forma response," which has left some of the Congress members furious. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, the ranking minority member of the Senate appropriations committee, was so angered by Reina's failure to answer he called U.S. Ambassador James F. Creagan in Tegucigalpa.

"This is extremely serious," said one congressional aide monitoring the case. "Something needs to be done. What that is, we don't know yet. But when Congress comes back in January, you're to see things start moving quickly."

Budde's comments will only add fuel to the fire. She said she believes her abrupt dismissal earlier this year by the Honduran Supreme Court as "unfit" was prompted because she was making rulings favorable to Valle as well as American citizens involved in an unrelated case involving a land dispute.

"I was a judge for three years, and no one ever said I was unfit until I made some rulings in favor of Americans," Budde said. "In the past four years, I haven't seen a single case where an American was involved that was resolved in favor of the American.

"After I was fired, I went to see one of the Supreme Court justices. I said, this is all because of the Americans. No American ever gets a fair hearing in our courts. It's not right, and it's not right what they're doing to Valle. And the justice started crying. The justice said, 'You're right, and this is a shame to the name of Honduras.' "

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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