Man accused of killing U.S. nun in Brazil claims self-defense
BELEM, Brazil – The man accused of killing the American nun and rain forest defender Dorothy Stang told a jury Friday that he acted in self-defense after mistaking her Bible for a gun.Rayfran das Neves Sales is accused of killing Stang, 73, with six shots from a .38-caliber revolver on Feb. 12 on a muddy road deep in the heart of the Amazon rain forest.Stang was killed in Para state, which is notorious across Brazil for corruption and land-related violence that in the past 20 years has claimed the lives of some 534 people. Only eight killers ever have been convicted, and many see the trial as a test of whether Brazil is serious about prosecuting land-related killings.Sales testified he and Stang had an argument over who owned the land he was working, and that Stang threatened to “finish him off” with the help of some 150 people living on a sustainable development reserve she was trying to establish.”She said, ‘The weapon I have is this,’ and reached into her bag,” Sales said. “I didn’t know what she was going to pull out of her bag, so I shot her.”Prosecutors allege that Vitalmiro Moura, a rancher, offered Sales and his co-defendant Clodoaldo Carlos Batista $25,000 to kill the nun, who spent the last 30 years of her life defending poor settlers in the rain forest. The prosecution contends that she was reading her Bible when she was shot at close range.In his testimony Friday, Sales sought to remove blame from his co-defendant and from Moura, one of two ranchers accused of orchestrating the killing.Sales acknowledged that his employer, Amair Feijoli, had given him the gun and told him to kill the nun a day earlier. But Sales denied being offered money to kill her.Feijoli has been charged with acting as a go-between for the gunmen and ranchers.A Brazilian Senate commission found the killing was part of a wider conspiracy involving a number of ranchers. Only Moura and another rancher, Regivaldo Galvao, have been charged with orchestrating the shooting.Sales said Friday that he did not intend to kill Stang but that after firing the first shot he “lost his head.” He did not remember firing five more bullets, he said.Batista told the court he was unaware that Sales was armed and about to kill Stang when the two met her in the forest, echoing the testimony of Sales, who also said Batista did not know about the gun and ran away when the first shot was fired.During the trial, which is expected to last through Saturday, prosecutors showed videotapes of confessions that contradicted the defendants’ testimony at the trial. They also showed three videotaped reenactments of the crime.In two of the tapes, each of the defendants separately re-enacted their version of events. A third version was provided by the only eyewitness to the killing – a man who appeared in court wearing a ski-mask and a bulletproof vest.”I wasn’t watching it. I only saw the scene in my head. I couldn’t watch it,” said Marguerite Stang, 72, the nun’s sister, who was in tears afterward.Following the killing, Sales said, he met Batista in the forest and the two men fled to a house owned by Moura, who was shocked to learn what had happened.”He said he wouldn’t wish that on his worst enemy, much less Dorothy,” Sales said.Sales’ testimony contradicted earlier confessions and seemed to be part of a defense strategy to classify the crime as a “simple homicide,” which carries a lesser sentence than a premeditated hit.Stang, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, has evoked comparisons to Chico Mendes, the rain forest defender who was killed in 1988 in the western Amazon state of Acre. Human rights advocates and a United Nations observer are among those attending the trial in this Amazon port city.”If they are convicted it would be a sign that things are changing and impunity is ending,” said Sandra Carvalho of the human rights group Global Justice.Stang’s brother, who traveled from his home near Cold Springs, Colo., to attend the trial, called Sales’ testimony absurd.”It’s lies, all lies,” David Stang said.Outside the courthouse, some 500 protesters camped out under crude tarpaulins, waving banners demanding justice and land reform. Rural violence has claimed nearly 1,000 lives in the past decade in Brazil.