Government's case in sanctuary trial hurt as key witness's credibility dims

For a week, defense attorneys have hammered away at the credibility of Jesus Cruz, the government informant who infiltrated the sanctuary movement for 10 months in 1984. Their questioning has managed to undermine three key aspects of Mr. Cruz's credibility: his activities prior to -- and during -- the investigation, his ability to coherently recall events, and his ability to understand spoken English.

``Cruz's credibility is central to the case,'' says defense attorney James Brosnahan. In order to keep taped conversations of the sanctuary workers (secretly recorded by Cruz), excluded from the evidence, the prosecution decided earlier to rely solely on Cruz's testimony to establish evidence against the defendants.

The 11 sanctuary workers are charged with conspiracy to smuggle, transport, and harbor illegal aliens. But the defendants, including a nun, two priests, a minister, and seven church lay workers, say it is their religious and humanitarian duty to aid Guatemalans and Salvadoreans fleeing violence in their homelands.

Cross examination has revealed:

Cruz's admission that he -- without notifying his superiors -- helped illegal aliens buy guns as recently as 1983 (at which time he was working for the government). The defense is reportedly prepared to prove Cruz himself, on at least one occasion, smuggled guns into Mexico -- a crime in both the US and Mexico.

But US District Judge Earl Carroll cut off testimony concerning the gun issue. Later he held a session -- without jury -- on the issue and ruled no evidence on the guns would be allowed. The defense maintains, however, that the fact that Cruz was engaging in illegal activities while employed by the US government -- and lying to his superiors about it -- is relevant.

Cruz has received $10,800 from the government from the time his undercover work ended in November of 1984 to the present. Cruz says that he was helping the prosecution prepare its case. The defense claims, however, that the irregularity in Cruz's pay vouchers suggests he was being paid to memorize his testimony.

Under direct examination by Special Assistant US Attorney Donald Reno, Cruz displayed an almost uncanny recall of names, dates, and conversations concerning alleged events that happened a year and a half ago. In contrast, Cruz frequently answered, ``I don't know'' or ``I can't remember'' when questioned by defense attorneys about things that took place only a month or two ago.

During one exchange, Cruz denied having an interview with Mr. Reno and James Rayburn of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service only 15 minutes after it, according to prosecutor Reno, took place during a court break. The judge, however, ruled that no perjury had been committed.

Cruz's understanding of English -- or lack thereof -- has also served to hurt the credibility of his testimony. He claims to have understood English conversations between the defendants, but when required to relate them in English, his English is extremely poor. At one point, Cruz said he does not understand English.

The government still has a number of witnesses to call. Prosecutor Reno is expected to begin calling Central Americans allegedly smuggled into the country by the defendants when court resumes Jan. 7. But, as one observer said, it now appears that the defendants will not be convicted on Cruz's work alone.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.