Jennifer Jean Casolo, the first American ever formally accused of aiding the leftist Salvadoran guerrillas, pleaded innocent Tuesday to charges of terrorism and possession of war weapons.
Speaking to reporters after 10 days in a cold jail cell, the tiny, irrepressible pacifist said she is determined to test a justice system in which she has little faith.
“It’s time to put our innocence before the courts,” she shouted from the back seat of a police pickup truck that had driven her to a military court arraignment.
“I can’t say I have faith in any system to find me innocent, but I believe my innocence will shine through,” she added.
Casolo, a 28-year-old church worker from Thomaston, Conn., was arrested with two Salvadorans staying at her home when it was raided by the National Police the night of Nov. 25.
The police said they dug up more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition, grenades and explosives from her back patio during the raid, which came amid an urban guerrilla offensive by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.
“They say they found arms in my house,” Casolo said. “We don’t know where they came from. They showed me the arms, but I don’t know if they really found them in my house.”
Guillermo Romero Hernandez, a slight, elderly judge in a rumpled brown suit, read the charges during a four-hour, 50-minute closed hearing in his small, concrete-block office in San Salvador’s tribunal complex.
Casolo sat facing him across a desk. Her Salvadoran lawyer, Salvador Ibarra, stood behind her.
A U.S. Embassy consular officer and three American church officials who traveled here last week to visit her waited in the judge’s outer chambers.
During a long interrogation, she gave her own recollection of the night of her arrest but declined to answer many of the judge’s questions on the grounds that she had not been allowed to consult her attorney in advance.
The judge has 72 hours to decide whether the charges merit a trial.
Casolo had worked here for five years for Christian Education Seminars, a Texas-based ecumenical religious group that organized visits for U.S. Congress members, church workers and other prominent Americans to El Salvador.
Because her tours offered interviews across the political spectrum, fellow religious workers said they suspected that Casolo was framed in an effort to discredit all church people and foreigners critical of the U.S.-backed right-wing government.
Casolo arrived at the courtroom without handcuffs, seated between two female prisoners in the police truck. One was Guadalupe Lopez, a Roman Catholic church activist arrested with her.
In front of them was a larger army truck with a score of manacled male prisoners, including Jose Federico Vasquez, the other person seized in her house.
A hefty policewoman with a G-3 rifle and her face covered with a black bandanna led Casolo, who is barely 5 feet tall, by the elbow into the judge’s chambers.
Casolo had been held until the hearing in a cell at National Police headquarters, with as many as five other women. Afterward she was transferred to Ilopango Women’s Prison, a place she had taken visiting delegations and interviewed prisoners.
“I guess I’ll be on the other side,” she said, looking serene and clutching a Bible as she left court.
To reporters, Casolo described long, difficult interrogations by her captors, who forced her to sleep, shivering, on a cardboard slab on the concrete floor, and to wear the same clothes five days in a row. She said that she and Lopez eventually came to terms with their jailers by “speaking of God” with them at every possible moment.
“It was really tough,” she said. “I felt that the police were really trying to get at the heart of me. But I discovered a strength around me. I just felt that I could share love with those who had me captive. And I think they shared love back with me. It was an absolutely life-changing experience.
“We weren’t trying to convert them but just sharing the spirit of God,” she explained. “We said to them, ‘Look, God is in you and God is in those who are being interrogated.’ ”
The few people allowed to visit Casolo in jail so far have confirmed her evangelical role there. They said she was in good spirits and has shared food they brought for her with fellow inmates.
Former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark, Casolo’s American legal adviser, was present Saturday when she baptized a male prisoner at the prisoner’s request. The day before, he watched her comforting a woman who appeared to have been tortured.
“She is under great strain, but her primary concern is for others,” Clark said. “I was a bit overwhelmed by the character and quality of her clear insight into what she’s about and what her task is in Christian ministry.”
Casolo’s legal situation is far murkier.
Asked after the hearing where her case stood, she said: “I think there are a lot of papers involved in this and that my person is the least.”
El Salvador has been under a state of siege since a week before her arrest, and new, tougher criminal legislation is in the works. The charges against her normally carry a penalty of up to 20 years imprisonment, but the judge has said the new laws might apply retroactively.
“There is confusion over what law will be applied,” Ibarra said after consulting a range of legal experts.
Clark, who arrived here last week at the behest of Casolo’s family and church organization, cannot legally represent her in court. He hired Ibarra to accompany her at Tuesday’s hearing and at later stages of the process, if she accepts him.
Ibarra is a celebrated defense attorney in a legal system dominated by fear of the armed forces. As attorney for the Lutheran Church’s legal aid office, he showed up at National Guard headquarters last month to ask about 12 Lutheran missionaries seized in a raid on a church. He was arrested on the spot and held nine days without charge.
In 1983, Ibarra was arrested and tortured after resigning his defense of a national guardsman on trial for the 1980 murders of four American churchwomen. He said he quit because guard officers were covering up evidence that the killers acted on superior orders.
Casolo has shaped her own legal fate by refusing to accept the idea of a quick hearing and expulsion from El Salvador. She has also told Clark that she is reluctant to accept a Salvadoran lawyer out of fear that the case might jeopardize his safety.
“As a lawyer, I would just say to Casolo, ‘Let’s go home, if we can,’ Clark said. “But she won’t do that. She’s very small but she does her own thinking. It may sound funny, but she loves the people. She doesn’t want to go home. Her heart is here.”
Paraphrasing the Bible, Casolo explained why she could never cut a deal to go free and leave the country.
“I was reading this morning about when Paul the apostle was in jail and they beat him. . . . He was praying and singing at night, which is what we did every night, and so the jailkeeper let him come to his house. The next day the king said, ‘Let them go, I believe in their god.’ And Paul said, ‘You beat us and you humiliated us and now you want to let us go quietly. No, let us go publicly.’ ”
The U.S. Embassy has taken a similar position in favor of a trial. Ambassador William Walker is said to be reluctant to intervene to seek her release on the ground that it would undermine his efforts to build faith in the judicial system.
Casolo’s defenders are angry that some U.S. officials have prejudged her in public and private remarks indicating they believe she is guilty.
On Tuesday, however, Casolo said she believes she is being treated “better than any other prisoner” because “the whole United States government is behind me.”
Asked about her prospects for a fair trial, she said:
“What do you think? Talk to all the prisoners. Are any of us going to get a fair trial? Where did they get the evidence against us? How did they get the evidence against us?”
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this story.