Daniel Sheehan’s Riveting Legal Memoir Is a Real Education

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After skillfully getting an immigration officer to confess the existence of the executive order, and thereby getting the edict before the jury, Sheehan then puts on the stand a direct witness to the atrocities committed by El Salvador’s government. The witness tearfully describes how he was the lone survivor amongst a group of innocent men, women, and children hiding in garage who were machined gunned to death by El Salvadoran army troops. The man’s riveting testimony causes the jury to weep and soon thereafter the judge offers the defense a directed verdict of not-guilty. It is here that we see how the young lawyer draws together the legal, the political and the moral. He turns down the offer so that he can continue the trial and thereby get more of this witness testimony into the public record, all the better to spread word of the atrocities through the American press.  This provides the occasion for his most impassioned moment before a jury:

In my closing argument, I implored the jury, “Look at the facts that have been presented to you. A sixteen-year-old girl named Maria, escaping from Herod’s men with her infant child in her arms, both of whom would be sent back to the slaughter if they were caught. And this older man, the man who was not the father of the child, but who took it upon himself to help them flee from Herod’s men. Does this story not sound familiar to you? We have all heard it before!”

Everybody on the jury, most of whom were Catholics, froze when I said this. The U.S. attorney jumped to his feet and started shouting. “I object! I object! Your Honor, this is an outrage!”

“You are absolutely right,” I shouted to the jury. “This is an outrage. The U.S. attorney and these two immigration officers—and this entire administration—should be ashamed of themselves! Our whole country should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing this to happen, in our name, to these two innocent people. These men,” I said, gesturing toward the prosecution table. “These ‘Herod’s men,’ should be ashamed of themselves for trying to draw you twelve good Americans on this jury into this dirty business against these two innocent victims, pursuant to which this administration would have you send them back to their certain deaths. Then the wrong that they have attempted to commit will become the wrong that you have committed. I do not believe that you will do this. Do not do this.”

The U.S. attorney jumped up. “I object! I object!”

But I pressed on. “Let these people go! These men,” I said, turning toward the assistant U.S. attorney, “are ‘Herod’s men.’ But you have a choice, a choice that none of us were alive to make two thousand years ago when our human family was confronted with this exact same choice before. You and I are privileged to have been given the opportunity to make this choice, this choice that we have all, as Americans, been asked to make in this case. Will you let these people go? The choice is up to you, my fellow Americans. The choice is up to you.”

The jury was in tears. Judge Vela was in tears. I was in tears. Archbishop Fitzpatrick was in shock.

But the moments of greatest tension in the book come when Sheehan is undertaking his investigations. After he, his equally extraordinary wife and collaborator, Sara Nelson, and a team of Jesuits and spiritual activists formed the Christic Institute (which, he tells us with a mixture of pride and bemusement, was “considered by the Washington religious community to be the most political religious organization in Washington and we were at the same time considered by the Washington political community to be the most religious political organization in Washington”), Sheehan became an icon within America’s progressive community. Front rank rock stars like Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, and Graham Nash raised funds for them through benefit concerts.

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