GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — A defense attorney questioned Spain's basis for charging a former Salvadoran colonel with the slayings of several priests during El Salvador's civil war, drawing a skeptical response Wednesday from the judge overseeing his extradition hearing.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly Swank said she plans to rule on Spain's request to extradite Inocente Orlando Montano Morales after a late September deadline for further legal filings from both sides.
Spain, the native country of five of the six slain priests, indicted Montano and other officers in the 1989 killings. Montano is the only one in Spain's reach because of an amnesty law in El Salvador for crimes during the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992.
In a wide-ranging presentation, defense attorney James Todd questioned the underlying evidence in the case and suggested that murder charges against Montano under a terror law don't line up well with U.S. legal definitions. He also argued the Spanish judge who issued the indictments in 2011 was wrong about whether the victims retained Spanish nationality when they died.
"Is this court really in a position to second-guess a Spanish judge's interpretation of Spanish law?" Swank said.
The answer is an emphatic no, said federal prosecutor John Capin.
"His assertion that his factual analysis ... should trump the analysis of the Spanish court is wrong," he said.
Capin said that the scope of an extradition hearing is limited to a few criteria, including probable cause and whether the offense is a crime in the U.S.
Despite stern exchanges with each side, Swank complimented both for their presentations in the complex case.
"It's going to take me some more time to digest this," she said.
Montano, 73, entered court using a walker, moving slowly and wearing an orange jail jumpsuit.
He has denied involvement in the killings in the early morning of Nov. 16, 1989. Court documents say members of the Salvadoran military killed the priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at a university in the country's capital. The priests had been calling for discussions to end the fighting.
An extradition complaint filed by U.S. authorities says Montano, who also served as El Salvador's vice minister of defense and public safety, oversaw a government radio station that issued death threats against the priests. It says the colonel attended a meeting when another officer gave the order for the killings.
Montano arrived in the U.S. in the early 2000s and worked for six years at a candy factory in a Boston suburb. He was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to nearly two years for immigration fraud and perjury. He served his time in a federal prison in North Carolina, setting the stage for the extradition fight.