Ex-U.S. Official Denies ‘Stonewalling’ in Nazi Case : Hearing: Lawyers for accused war criminal John Demjanjuk charge that Justice Dept. withheld evidence. Former chief of probe defends policies.
The former chief of the Justice Department division charged with pursuing Nazi war criminals denied Friday that the department “stonewalled” defense attorneys seeking evidence to clear their client.
Lawyers for John Demjanjuk contend that as a result of the department’s suppression of evidence, the 72-year-old retired auto worker from Cleveland was wrongly extradited to Israel, where he was convicted of war crimes in 1988. He now is being held in solitary confinement in Israel, where he is appealing a death sentence.
On the second day of an extraordinary hearing to examine the Justice Department’s handling of evidence in the case, Martin Mendelsohn, former director of the criminal division of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, said department policy was not to disclose exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys unless they specifically requested it.
Mendelsohn acknowledged under questioning from public defender Edward F. Marek, representing Demjanjuk, that the department refused to disclose requested evidence in a number of instances after determining that the materials were either irrelevant or exempt from disclosure requirements.
One such item was an August, 1979, letter from Poland’s Ministry of Justice, which informed Mendelsohn that its files contained no information connecting Demjanjuk to the Treblinka death camp. Witnesses had claimed that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible, a sadistic Treblinka guard who operated the gas chambers and terrorized Jewish prisoners.
The Polish ministry sent a list that included the names of 43 known guards at the camp, including a Marczenko Iwan. Testimony previously given to the Justice Department had raised doubts that Demjanjuk had been at Treblinka and indicated that an Ivan Marchenko was Ivan the Terrible.
However, Mendelsohn maintained Friday that he did not view the Polish letter and list as relevant to the defense attorneys’ request.
As Mendelsohn answered Marek’s questions about his justification for not disclosing the materials, U.S. District Judge Thomas Wiseman interjected: “You ever heard the term ‘stonewalling,’ Mr. Mendelsohn?”
“Yes sir,” a surprised Mendelsohn responded.
“You don’t consider what you did stonewalling?”
On Thursday, George Parker, a lawyer who worked in the Justice Department under Mendelsohn testified that he had been so troubled by conflicting evidence in the Demjanjuk case that he had written a memorandum in February, 1980, detailing flaws in the case and then resigned when superiors decided to proceed with denaturalization and extradition proceedings.
“When I left the department I did not think (Demjanjuk) was Ivan the Terrible,” Parker said.
Mendelsohn, who left the Office of Special Investigations in January, 1980, one month before the Parker memorandum, said Parker never discussed his reservations about the case with him.
Despite testimony from death camp survivors that Demjanjuk had committed atrocities at Treblinka, the Justice Department had gathered mounting evidence since 1978 that Demjanjuk in fact had been at a Nazi camp in Sobibor, Poland, about 50 miles away, Parker said.
Sobibor guards testified that Demjanjuk worked there with them. In addition, an identification card that belonged to Demjanjuk during World War II placed him at the Germans’ Trawniki SS training camp in 1942. It showed that he was posted in September, 1942, to a farm and then in March, 1943, to Sobibor. Witnesses said the man called Ivan the Terrible rarely, if ever, left the camp, but no documentary evidence has ever placed Demjanjuk at Treblinka, where nearly 900,000 people were killed.
Parker also said he was troubled because witnesses described Ivan the Terrible as about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, while Demjanjuk is about 6 feet, 1 inch.
While Demjanjuk acknowledges that he lied about his Ukrainian citizenship and activities during the war when he sought entry into the United States in 1951, he has consistently denied that he ever served at any concentration camp or death camp. He maintains that he was a prisoner of war from 1942 until the end of the war.
The unusual hearing is being held because the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals named Wiseman to gather evidence to help determine whether the Justice Department improperly withheld evidence that would have cleared Demjanjuk.
Demjanjuk’s lawyers learned that the Justice Department had evidence that pointed to Marchenko being Ivan the Terrible last year when the Soviet Union, during that country’s breakup, released material from its files to Israel.
In the two days of hearings, defense attorneys tried to portray lawyers in the Office of Special Investigations as obsessed with winning their case against Demjanjuk because of several recent losses and political pressure from members of Congress to quickly extradite war criminals so they could stand trial in Israel.
However, Mendelsohn denied Friday that he ever felt such pressure, saying the department received letters from lawmakers all the time. “That’s what they do in Washington,” he said.
After Friday’s testimony, Wiseman set the next hearing for Dec. 21.. In all, six witnesses are expected to give testimony before Wiseman turns over the hearing records, and possibly a recommendation, to the appeals court.
Demjanjuk’s son, John Jr., said he hoped that if the court finds that the Justice Department acted improperly, his father’s U.S. citizenship would be returned, allowing him to return to the United States if the Israeli Supreme Court overturns his conviction.
While the younger Demjanjuk said he is hopeful the Israeli court will find his father not guilty of the crimes for which he is charged, he said his family and his father are frustrated with the slowness of the process. “They’ve had this information before them for many months now,” he said of the Israeli court.
He said he quit college in 1985 to devote his full time to his father’s case.
“We’ve never given up on our system of justice,” he said. “I don’t think it was our system of justice that let us down. It was the U.S. Justice Department and a small division within the Justice Department.”