Appeals Court Says Witness Need Not Have Guardian in Lawsuit Judgment


A man in the witness protection program will not be appointed a guardian to assist in the payment of a judgment, ruled a federal appeals court.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case of Michael Townley, an American citizen who worked with the Chilean intelligence service during the regime of President Augusto Pinochet, a repressive dictator. Townley was convicted of complicity in the assassination, in 1976, of one of Pinochet’s enemies, Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his assistant. The two were killed in Washington, DC when an explosive device was detonated underneath their vehicle.

Townley received a sentence of five years in prison for his role in the bombing, and after serving that time was placed in the witness protection program, because he had cooperated with federal prosecutors. The witness protection program gives new identities to witnesses whose safety has been compromised, and helps them relocate and begin a new life.

Yet Townley’s previous political actions continued to come to light. Included among the crimes that were discovered subsequent to his entering the witness protection program was the 1976 torture and murder of a United Nations diplomat. Carmelo Soria Espinoza was killed in Chile.

His widow, Laura Gonzalez-Vera, sued both Townley and was awarded a $7 million judgment against him. When the U.S. Marshals Service said that it was reasonable to expect Townley to contribute $75 a week toward the judgment, Gonzalez-Vera then sued the U.S. Attorney General, citing a section of federal law which states that a judgment against a participant in the witness protection program may be collected with the help of a court-appointed guardian. This point of law is intended to allow the recipient of judgment monies access to that person, if the attorney general refuses to identify the new name and location of the protected witness.

The Justice Department had ruled that this provision would only apply if the protected person was not demonstrating reasonable efforts to make the payments. The recent three-judge panel of the Circuit Court of Appeals concurred, and added that Townley is indeed complying with the terms of the judgment.

The risks of identifying the witness protection participant, even to a court-appointed guardian, were too great, wrote the panel. “[W]e 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,” wrote appeals judge David Tatel.


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