On 3rd try, Brazil rancher again convicted in killing of U.S.-born nun

Reporting from Bogota, Colombia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil -- A Brazilian court has convicted a rancher in the 2005 killing a U.S.-born nun, Dorothy Stang, in the third trial that the co-mastermind of her murder has faced.

After 15 hours of deliberations, a jury found Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura guilty of planning the killing of Stang, 73. At the time of her death from six gunshots at close range, she was living among landless peasants in remote Para state in the Amazon River basin.

Authorities have long alleged that De Moura, now 39, plotted Stang’s murder because she blocked him and other ranchers from taking over land that had been set aside for the poor for sustainable development. Stang also is said to have denounced De Moura for illegal deforestation of his land.

De Moura’s initial conviction in 2007 was reversed in a second trial in 2008, after convicted gunman Rayfran das Neves Sales recanted his testimony. The acquittal raised an international outcry among critics, who said it exemplified the immunity enjoyed by wealthy Brazilian landowners and loggers. Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello also said that justice had “fallen short of its responsibility.”

The acquittal was overturned last year on a technicality, and a third trial was ordered.

Dozens of activists, friends and colleagues of Stang camped out and prayed near the courthouse in the steamy Amazon River port city of Belem.

“The defendant, who showed a violent personality, was also wicked and cowardly in ordering the destruction of an elderly woman who helplessly had no chance to escape the attack of her executioner,” Judge Raimundo Moises Flexa said after the verdict was read in the courtroom.

De Moura’s attorneys told jurors their client was the victim of “an American conspiracy” and that God would punish them if they returned a guilty verdict. De Moura did not testify.

Two gunmen and a middleman have been convicted in Stang’s murder and are serving lengthy prison sentences. De Moura’s partner, Regivaldo Galvao, will be tried this month for allegedly helping plan the crime.

A native of Dayton, Ohio, Stang worked in Brazil for almost 40 years, becoming a naturalized citizen and helping set up schools, medical clinics and churches for landless peasants. She is one of an estimated 700 environmentalists and rights workers who have been killed in the Amazon basin in the last decade.

Kraul and Soares are special correspondents.