Court rules in favor of man in witness protection

By Pete Yost
Associated Press Writer / February 23, 2010

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WASHINGTON—A federal appeals court on Tuesday made it more difficult to collect money from lawsuits against people in the witness protection program.

The decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here came in a case involving Michael Townley, who entered the program after serving five years in prison for complicity in the 1976 assassination in Washington, D.C., of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his assistant, who were killed when a bomb was placed under their car.

Townley is an American citizen who was an agent of the Chilean intelligence service during the repressive regime of President Augusto Pinochet and Letelier was a prominent Pinochet foe. Townley cooperated with federal prosecutors and was put into the witness protection program, which allows the U.S. attorney general to change the identity of and relocate cooperating witnesses whose safety is at risk.

Evidence of Townley's links to various crimes continued to surface over the years, including the 1976 torture and murder in Chile of United Nations diplomat Carmelo Soria Espinoza, whose widow obtained a $7 million judgment against Townley in U.S. courts.

The widow, Laura Gonzalez-Vera, then sued the attorney general and Townley after the U.S. Marshals Service said it was not unreasonable for Townley to pay $75 per week toward the judgment.

Gonzalez-Vera invoked a section of federal law on the witness protection program that calls for court appointment of a guardian to help collect a judgment if the attorney general refuses, as in the case of Townley, to identify the identity and location of a protected person.

A three-judge panel ruled that a court-appointed guardian can be used to help collect a judgment only if the protected witness is not making reasonable efforts to pay the money.

The Justice Department had argued that the guardian provision only applies if the protected person fails to make reasonable efforts to comply and that in this instance, Townley was making reasonable efforts to pay the judgment.

In part because of the risks of disclosing a protected person's identity and location even to a court-appointed guardian, "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" to pay, wrote appeals judge David Tatel.

"We realize this leaves Gonzalez-Vera, though dissatisfied with Townley's efforts to pay, without a remedy in these proceedings," Tatel added in upholding a lower court's dismissal of the case.