For Justice Sake

On a hot October afternoon, the black Model T with four
armed young men veered from the two-lane highway and,
trailing dust, entered the main road of the Terceditas
sugar mill.

My mother, alerted by the dog’s barking, ran to her porch
and saw the dusty black car parked by the house. A tall
gaunt young man dressed in a cream-colored suit stepped
out with a Thompson machine gun under his arm. He
approached with a smile and taking his hat off said,
“Good afternoon, miss. My name is Alberto Lomita. I’m the
Presiding Judge of the Regional Revolutionary Tribunal. I
understand Mr. Zorzo has a cabin for rent in the back.”

My mother briefly inspected the young man with the long
nose and the shock of black hair nesting on his forehead.
His wrinkled suit had sweat circles under his arms.

“I’ll tell my father you are here. Please take a seat on the
porch.”

Under this, not too auspicious of circumstances, my
parents met. It was the year 1933, and Gerardo Machado
had fled the Island. Machado was a good example of how
important a timely exit can be. In 1924 when he was
elected president, Machado was already a revered figure
in Cuba; a general of the War of Independence and a
prominent businessman, he was immensely popular at
the end of his term.

Unfortunately, his cronies convinced him he was the
only one who could save Cuba from the economic
depression that gripped the Island. When his best efforts
failed, public unrest followed— workers went on strike
and newspapers called for his resignation.
Unaccustomed to criticism, Machado responded with
repression and began to slide down the slippery slope
of all dictatorships— acts of rebellion were followed by
increasingly brutal repression.

By 1933, a full-scale civil war seemed imminent. The
American companies that controlled the Island’s
economy were losing money and petitioned their
government for intervention. The American
ambassador paid a visit to the dictator. He hinted
that an American occupation of the Island was
inevitable if things did not improve.

By August the dictator had resigned and fled the
country. The following month my father returned from
political exile.

Since my father was a law student and a former
member of the armed forces, the new ruling party
called the ABC sent him to organize revolutionary
tribunals in the western province of Pinar Del Rio.
His mission: to bring to justice members of the
former regime who had committed war crimes.

My father and his three associates stayed at the
cabin for the four days that it took them to try two
men accused of torturing and killing a local youth
suspected of arson.

The trial took place at the sugar mill meeting hall. The large
hall was packed with curious spectators; people filled the
porch and spilled out onto the street. In a crush, they pushed
against the opened windows.

My father, in his now clean suit, and two of his associates sat
on a dais. To one side, facing the judges, sat the two accused
and their defense lawyer. On the opposite side sat the other
associate in his role of prosecutor.

My father hit the table with the gavel and yelled, “Order in
the court. I want absolute silence from the public. The trial of
Lucio Mendiz and Alfredo Chavan charged with torturing and
murdering Emilio Hurides on December 11, 1932 is now
in progress. The defendants and their lawyer will rise.”

Two heavyset ex-rural guards raised themselves slowly, their
leg irons jiggling in the silent room. They looked at my father
with dull, bored expressions that said they didn’t have any
illusions about the outcome of this trial.

“How do the defendants plea?”

“Not guilty, Your Honor,” said the short, balding lawyer
looking at the flies walking on the wet cigar butt he had just
placed on the ashtray.

“Very well, you may proceed with your opening statement.”

“Your Honor, I want to make clear to members of this
community in which I practice law that I neither sought nor
wanted, nor I am getting paid for representing these men and
that I’m doing it solely because you left me no choice.”

“Your statement is out of order and won’t be part of the record.
Please proceed with your statement on behalf of the
defendants,” said my father, the presiding judge sternly.

“Your Honors, it’s true that the defendants arrested Emilio
Hurides on December 10, 1932, on orders from lieutenant
Ulisis Garta. They escorted Mr. Hurides to the rural guards
barracks of the Tercedita Sugar Mill. Furthermore, it’s true that
on the following day they took the victim and hanged him from
a telephone pole, but they neither tortured nor killed Emilio
Hurides.”

There were some loud laughs from the audience and someone
yelled, “And your father never made love to your mother.”
From the other side of the room another spectator yelled,
“That’s true, but the milkman did.” The hall roared with
laughter. The presiding judge angrily rapped his gavel.

“Silence or I will evacuate the hall!”

The defense lawyer with his arms crossed over his chest
smugly looked over the audience and then at the judges.

“Well, is that your opening statement?” my father asked with
irritation.

“No Your Honor, I submit to you that the defendants did not
act on their own, but under orders from their lieutenant.
They were soldiers and had no choice but to obey. I further
submit to you that it was Sergeant Carallo who tortured the
victim and finally killed Emilio with a rifle butt blow to the neck
and that it was under orders from Lieutenant Garta that they
took the dead body and hung it from a telephone pole as an
example to future arsonists. Your honor, these men are guilty
of nothing more than being insensitive to the respect that the
remains of the victim deserved, and therefore should be found
not guilty of torture and murder. Your honor, I have nothing
further to state.”

During the lawyer’s speech, the accused stared ahead without
even once glancing at the lawyer. Their peasant faces showed
no emotion. As soon as the lawyer began speaking, the older
one rescued the cigar from the flies and slipped it in his shirt
pocket.

“Very well. Now, the prosecutor may give the court his
opening statement.”

“Your Honors, the defense statement is so preposterous it
hardly deserves rebuttal. These men hanged the victim in
broad daylight in front of a witness and now they expect us
to believe they hanged a dead man. What would the purpose
be of hanging a corpse? As an example, they say. Well, let’s
pretend we believe that, but why hang him by the neck?
Would it not have been easier to place the rope under his
arms, since they intended this despicable act just as an
example? Why go to all the trouble of making a proper
hangman’s noose for a dead man, when a simpler type of
knot would have sufficed for their purpose? No, your
honors, sensible men can’t believe such a ridiculous story.
These men are guilty as charged and deserve to be hung
for their crime. Thank you, your honors. I have nothing
further to add at this time.”

” The defense may call the first witness.”

“Your Honor, the defense calls Juan Parides as the first
witness.”

A large man, sweating profusely, came forward and
carefully sat on a chair that groaned under his weight.
After taking the oath, the witness wiped his face with a
large handkerchief.

“Mr. Parides, on the morning of December 11, 1932
around ten o’clock a.m. were you sitting on your porch?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Mr. Parides, on that morning did you see the defendants
at all?”

“Yes, they parked a truck across the street from my house
and hanged Emilio from a telephone pole.”

“Mr. Parides, was Emilio riding on the cab with the
defendants or on the bed of the truck?”

“He was on the bed.”

“Did Emilio step down from the truck or was he carried
out by the defendants?”

“He was carried out.”

“Did you get a good look at Emilio when they took him
out?”

“I did.”

“Did he have handcuffs or leg irons on, or was he bound
in any other way?”

“No, sir.”

“Did Mr. Hurides talk, or make any kind of gesture or
movement that would have indicated he was alive?”

“I did not hear him say anything.”

“Did you see him struggle or make any voluntary
movements?”

“No, sir.”

“When he was taken to the pole and they put the noose
around his neck, was he standing on his own two feet?”

“No, they were holding him up.”

“Did Mr. Hurides look alive to you?”

“Objection, your Honor, the witness is not a medical
doctor,” yelled the prosecutor.

“Sustained, do not answer that question, Mr. Parides.”

The lawyer moved closer to the witness and leaning forward
said, “Mr. Parides, describe to the court how the victim was
hanged.”

The fat man gingerly rearranged himself on the chair and
looked at the presiding judge.

“You may tell the Court, Mr. Parides.”

“They tied the rope on one of the pecks the repairmen use to
climb the pole and then hoisted him up about three feet from
the ground.”

“After they hoisted him up, did the victim’s legs jerk about?
Did he raise his hands to his throat or give any other sign he
was choking?”

“No.”

“Your Honor, I submit to you that the defendants, who had
many years with the rural guards and have escorted many
prisoners before were not likely to take a live man to his
execution unbound and un-escorted on the bed of a truck and
that this witness’ answers to my questions have proved to this
Court that Mr. Hurides was already dead when he was hung.”

The presiding judge banged his gavel. The defense lawyer will
save any arguments he has for the closing statement. These
answers could only indicate at best that the victim was
unconscious and the defendants were negligent. Have you any
further questions for this witness?”

“No, Your Honor.”

“The prosecutor may cross examine the witness.”

The prosecutor, a law student in his early twenties, as were his
colleagues of the Court, approached the platform with a scowl.
The prosecutor placed himself in front of the witness and arms
akimbo, stared at the witness. Parides glanced at the presiding
judge.

“Mr. Parides, when you saw the guards take the victim from the
truck was he suffering from rigor mortis?”

The witness looked down at his lap.

“Well, yes or no?” asked the prosecutor.

“I don’t know what rigor martyr is.”

The prosecutor directed an amused glance to the panel of
judges.

“Was he stiff as a board?”

“No.”

“Were his arms and legs dangling?”

“I don’t know.”

” I want a yes or a no, Mr. Parides.”

“Objection, your Honor, if the witness is not sure he should
be allowed to say so.”

“Sustained. Disregard the question, Mr. Parides.”

“Mr. Parides, did the guards hang the prisoner by the neck?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Were the accused aware you were sitting on your porch?”

“Yes sir, they said good morning to me when they got off the
truck.”

“Did they say anything else to you?”

“One of them said I looked bored and they were going to hang
Emilio in front of my house so I had something to look at.”

“Are you sure he said Emilio?”

“Yes.”

“He didn’t say Emilio’s corpse or any other word that refers
to a dead person?”

“No, sir, he said Emilio.”

” No further questions, Your Honor.”

The presiding judge announced, “The Defense will call the
next witness.”

“Your Honor, the defense calls Alfredo Chavan.”

The accused stood up and looked down at the other defendant
and then at the defense lawyer.

The accused carefully moved to the platform and was helped
up the two-steps stair by his lawyer. After taking the oath,
the guard surveyed the hall with a contentious look and
fishing in his shirt pocket, took the cigar out and bit off the
butt. He slowly began to chew with relish.

“Mr. Chavan, were you present when the victim was killed?”

“Yes, I was in his cell when Sergeant Carallo killed him.”

“Please, tell the Court how you happened to be in his cell
and what you witnessed there?”

“I was reporting for work that morning and on approaching, I
heard loud screams coming from the barrack. Bystanders
were already congregating on the street. I was asked by the
sentry at the door to inform lieutenant Garta about these
people standing about listening. I was told by the guard at
the desk the lieutenant was in the cell, so I went there.”

“Please tell us what you saw when you got to the cell.”

“When I was half way to the cell the screaming stopped.
When I opened the door the prisoner seemed unconscious
and lieutenant Garta was slapping him. Sergeant Carallo
had a pair of pliers in one hand and a paring knife in the
other. The prisoner’s feet were bare and bloody and his
toenails were on the floor. When he noticed me, the
lieutenant turned and said in an angry voice, ‘Get a bucket
of cold water and wake this bastard up.’ Then he turned
toward the sergeant. ‘You keep at it until he talks.’ When I
returned, the lieutenant was gone and the sergeant was
sitting on the cot with his face in his hands.”

The guard’s voice trailed off and he chewed on his tobacco. He
visualized the tall and bony black sergeant as he saw him that
day— His bald skull gleaming with drops of sweat.

“What are you chewing?” asked my father with annoyance,
interrupting the guard’s daydreaming.

“Tobacco.”

“Swallow it!” yelled my father.

Chavan spat the mess on the platform and looked at my father
with a smile.

“Please, Mr. Chavan, continue your testimony.” said the lawyer
with an amused look in his eyes.

“I dumped the water over Emilio’s head but he did not stir. I
told the sergeant the guy wasn’t waking up. The sergean
looked up.

‘I wish he were dead’, he said. He got up and placed
his fingers on the prisoner’s neck.

‘No, He’s alive. I hate torturing people. It gives me
nightmares’.

The sergeant began pacing the cell.

‘You know what else: this guy doesn’t know shit. He’d have
talked by now if he did; and I’ll tell you something else:
this guy is about to break down and start naming people
who didn’t do shit either, people who will be arrested and
who I’ll have to torture.’ The sargeant saw his rifle resting
against the cot, rushed at it and lifting it up high, brought
it down on the prisoner’s neck with a swift blow. I heard
the bone crack.”

The lawyer extended his hands toward the witness. “Hold it
right there. You heard the neck bone crack?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Your Honor, we have heard the previous witness state the
victim was hoisted about three feet from the ground, and
not dropped from several feet, therefore, if his neck was
fractured he must have been dead before he was hanged.”

“Dr. Ramirez, are you a Doctor in Medical Science or
Jurisprudence?”

“Jurisprudence, Your Honor.”

“So how do you know the victim was dead and not simply
paralyzed?”

“I could not be certain, but a forensic examiner could
make that determination.”

“Are you finished with this witness?”

“No, Your Honor.”

“What happened next, Mr. Chavan?”

“The Sergeant said, ‘If you tell the lieutenant what I did,
I’ll kill you. You know that, don’t you?’

‘I won’t say a word, you know me.’

‘Go tell that bastard you couldn’t wake this guy up
because he is dead’, the sergeant ordered me.

When the lieutenant came back he was furious.

‘How did you manage to kill this guy, you idiot!’

‘I did not kill him, sometimes people just die from shock.’

Garta stared at him angrily as if deciding how to kill him,
but then shook his head and just said. ‘You can’t do shit
right, get out of my sight.’

He turned to me and said. ‘Hang this fagot from a phone
pole. Do it on the main road, I want everyone to know
that’s what they have coming if another sugar field
happens to catch fire.’ ”

No more questions, Your Honor, but I request the court
to order the exhumation of the victim’s body,” said the
lawyer.

“Request denied.”

“Your Honor, I ask the court to reconsider. That’s the
only way to establish beyond reasonable doubt the
innocence or guilt of the accused.”

“Approach the bench.”

“What are you trying to pull? Hurides died over eight
months ago, and there isn’t a forensic examiner within
two hundred miles of this dump.

“Request a forensic doctor from Havana,” said the
lawyer.

“I have no such authority.”

“Ask your boss.”

“It will take weeks. All revolutionary trials must end
before the month is over so the new president can
declare an amnesty of Machado’s supporters and
reunite the country. I know my request will be denied.”

“Doesn’t it bother you that Garta and sargeant Carillo are
still at large and will get amnesty, and these two peasants
will get the rope?”

“It’s up to you to cast doubt on their guilt. You’r motion
is denied. Work with what you have.”

The lawyer shook his head and went back to his chair.

“The prosecution may question the witness.”

Mr. Chavan, why did you hang Mr. Hurides by the neck
with a hangman’s noose?”

“The lieutenant told me to do it that way. He gave me
the rope with the noose already made.”

” Did he? I see.” said the prosecutor, walking back to his
small table. He returned with a sheet of paper. “Have you
seen this document before, Mr. Chavan?”

The guard read the document murmuring the words with
hesitation, and finally threw the sheet of paper toward the
prosecutor with disgust. “That’s a dammed lie!”

“Your Honors, this document…” said the prosecutor,
lifting the paper from the floor and holding it high above
his head, “is a report dated July, 25, 1933 of an
investigation being conducted by lieutenant Garta in the
torture and murder of Emilio Hurides. In this document
it’s stated that the principal suspects were the two
defendants who, after arresting the victim took him to a
burned sugar field and tortured him, after which they
hanged the victim across from Mr. Parides’ house.”

****

Next morning the convicted murderers were hanged from
the same pole. A much smaller male audience gathered.
Mr. Parides and several friends were sitting on his porch.
The morning was mild and the mockingbirds were
singing when Alfredo Chavan was taken to the pole and
helped to climb on the roof of the Model T. My father
slipped the noose around his neck and asked if he
had any last words. The man hesitated briefly, looked
around as if searching for a friendly face, and then
yelled, “Mr. Parides, what are you doing for fun tomorrow?”
The fat man gave him an embarrassed smile and timidly
waved.

My father tapped the roof of the car with his foot and the
Model T slowly moved forward.

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