By Lori Atherton September 12, 2016
Christian Urrutia, JD/MA '09, never expected to get involved in a 40-year-old murder case, let alone one that had occurred more than 5,000 miles away in Latin America. But that's exactly what happened when he volunteered as pro bono counsel for the family and estate of slain Chilean folk singer Victor Jara.
In September 2013, Urrutia and his colleagues from Chadbourne & Parke LLP in New York, along with lawyers from the Center for Justice & Accountability, filed a civil suit under the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute on behalf of Victor Jara's family, alleging that Pedro Pablo Barrientos, a naturalized U.S. citizen and former Chilean Army officer, was responsible for the torture and murder of Jara in 1973. Thus began a three-year journey for Urrutia in which he devoted thousands of pro bono hours to the case, including poring over tens of thousands of pages of eyewitness testimony taken by Chilean authorities; identifying key potential witnesses; traveling to Chile multiple times to gather evidence and interview witnesses; and litigating the case through discovery and motion practice. The case culminated in an eight-day jury trial in Orlando, Florida, in June, when Urrutia and his colleagues obtained a $28 million verdict for the Jara family after a six-person jury found Barrientos liable of the torture and extrajudicial killing of Victor Jara.
"We were elated when the jury came back with their verdict," Urrutia said. "We had an assortment of jurors who took this case seriously to determine whether Barrientos was a torturer and a murderer. They helped bring some accountability and closure to a four-decade-old murder case that carried with it significant political ramifications."
Jara was a popular Chilean singer, songwriter, university professor, and political activist who advocated for social change in his country. He was deeply involved in Chilean politics and was associated with the government of President Salvador Allende. During a military coup on September 11, 1973, in which Augusto Pinochet overthrew Chile's democratic government, Jara and thousands of others who were aligned with Allende—or suspected of being opposed to the newly installed military junta—were imprisoned in Chile Stadium, which was run by the Tejas Verdes army unit.
Jara was brutally tortured at Chile Stadium for four days before being shot in his head and body nearly 40 times. After Jara was murdered, his widow, Joan, had to claim his body and clandestinely bury it before fleeing the country with their two daughters. She spent decades trying to uncover who killed her husband. That question was answered in 2012, when, following years of investigation, the now-democratic Chilean government indicted Barrientos—an officer in the Tejas Verdes in 1973—as the direct perpetrator of Jara's killing. Seven others were also indicated with Barrientos, whose whereabouts had been unknown until a Chilean news team discovered that same year that he had been living in Florida as a U.S. citizen.
Barrientos made it clear that he had no intention of returning to Chile, so Jara's widow and daughters, represented by Urrutia and his colleagues at Chadbourne & Parke, sought to pursue accountability in the United States. In 2013, they brought a civil suit against Barrientos, claiming violations of the Torture Victim Protection Act and Alien Tort Statute, which allows plaintiffs in the United States to bring a claim against an individual who engaged in torture or extrajudicial killings in foreign countries.
As Urrutia and the other lawyers delved into the case, they were met with complications that involved more than just language barriers. Because Jara's murder occurred during a bloody coup that gave rise to Pinochet's dictatorship, many of the former guards at Chile Stadium who witnessed what happened to Jara (and had themselves conspired in the detention, torture, and killing of civilians) didn't want to talk to lawyers, particularly foreign lawyers, about events that had transpired 40 years ago. "We had to convince key military guards from that time to assist us in a case 5,000 miles away in the United States, which wasn't easy, because we had no ability to compel testimony and had to appeal to their sense of justice," Urrutia said. "It involved us going to Chile at least five times to vet witnesses that we thought would be helpful to us and get them to go on the record and make statements that had never been made before in connection with what happened at Chile Stadium. Those videotaped depositions became the heart of our liability case and not only helped prove who killed Jara, but also significantly advanced Chile's understanding of what transpired at Chile Stadium during the early days of the military junta."
For Urrutia—a senior associate at Chadbourne whose regular caseload focuses on international arbitration and cross-border litigation—putting together a case of this magnitude made for an unforgettable experience. "What made this case particularly intense was the significant amount of attention in Chile and Latin America that was given to it, as well as the stakes," he said. "What happened to Victor Jara has been a mystery in Chile for a significant amount of time. Many people felt the case could give voice to other people who had been tortured, disappeared, or extrajudicially killed during the overthrow of the Allende government, and that if Victor could get justice, there could be a little bit of justice for other people in that situation too.
"It also gives a warning to perpetrators of torture, extrajudicial killing, and war crimes who are living in the United States that they can be held accountable here, regardless of how far away or how long ago they committed such horrendous acts."
Read more about Victor Jara:
Wikipedia: Victor Jara
The Guardian: "Former Chilean military official found liable for killing of Victor Jara"
Read more feature stories.
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