United States v. Berkan Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 

May 1979

Case Description 

United States v. Berkan is a criminal case in which the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) represented Judy Berkan, Bishop Antulio Parilla Bonilla, Salvador Tió, and William Andrés Trevathan and sought to appeal their convictions after their participation in a protest of the U.S. Navy bombing of Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Vieques is a small island a few miles off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico. The people of Vieques struggled for years to get the United States Navy, which occupies four-fifths of the island, off their land and out of the waters. Dozens of Viequenses have been killed or maimed as a result of the daily practice bombings in the hills and the amphibious landings on the beaches.

In May 1979, 21 people, including three clergymen, five attorneys, a fisherman, and a school teacher, were arrested while participating in an ecumenical protest service held on land claimed by the Navy. Seventeen of the 21 were convicted and sentenced to prison, some for the maximum of six months. Angel Rodríguez Cristóba, a 31-year-old father of two and one of those convicted and sentenced to prison, was sent to Tallahassee to serve his six-month sentence and was “found hanging” in his cell with a four-inch cut on his face and multiple bruises on his body. Many Puerto Ricans rejected the official finding of suicide and charged the government with murder.

Four of the protestors – Judith Berkan, Bishop Antulio Parilla Bonilla, Salvador Tió and William Andrés Trevathan – appealed their convictions and were represented by CCR attorneys.

While the appeals were being prepared, Lt. Alex de la Zerda, the Navy Liaison officer for Vieques, was arrested for bombing the Puerto Rican Bar Association and for participating in a conspiracy “to intimidate and oppress” members of the Bar Association, the National Lawyers Guild and the Legal Services Corporation of Puerto Rico, because of “past representation of Vieques demonstrators.” A key prosecution witness at all the “Vieques 21” trials, de la Zerda’s credibility was thus cast into doubt. CCR attorneys filed motions for a new trial and again called for the disqualification of Judge Torruella. Torruella, who during the year was labeled the worst judge in the First Circuit, denied all of the motions, a decision which we then appealed to the First Circuit.

In May 1979, the convictions were reversed and the charges were dismissed. This decision is important because the court questioned whether the United States owns the Vieques beaches where Berkan and other demonstrated. As there was insufficient proof of U.S. ownership, defendants could not be convicted of trespassing on naval land.