Author and lawyer Michael Withey details the investigation into the killings of two union workers in 1981
A murder in broad daylight at a union office. An assassination paid for by a foreign spy agency, made to look like a gang killing. A cover-up by the FBI. It sounds like something you’d find in a thriller, but it all happened. And it happened in Seattle.
Michael Withey’s “Summary Execution” details the assassinations of Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo in Pioneer Square in 1981, and the nearly nine-year quest for justice undertaken by the victims’ families, friends and comrades. They realized from the start that the killings, which were made to look as if they arose from an internal union dispute over who got dispatched from Seattle to work in Alaska canneries, likely had their provenance in dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ efforts to stifle Filipino-American opposition to his rule in the Philippines.
Withey was one of the chief lawyers for the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes (CJDV). He devoted years of his life to first finding witnesses for the initial criminal trial of the hitmen, and then to building a civil wrongful death case against Marcos, Tony Baruso (the union president) and others involved in the conspiracy.
In the process, Withey and his committee ran squarely up against the limits of justice for Americans who are on the wrong side of U.S. “national security” considerations. With Ronald Reagan as president of the United States, Marcos was considered an important ally against Communism. He sent agents to the United States with the tacit permission of U.S. security agencies to conduct surveillance against Americans opposing his regime, despite the fact that such activities are illegal.
Readers are left to draw their own conclusions about why King County prosecutors declined to pursue evidence of Baruso’s and others’ involvement in the deaths, or to even charge a third hitman (who, suspiciously, was killed two weeks after he was arrested and released without charge); about the role of the FBI in the case, which seemed to be mostly interested in limiting the scope of the investigation; and about who was behind the appearance of a mystery witness who unsuccessfully claimed that Viernes had not been killed by the two hitmen.
In one revealing chapter, the CJVD hires an ex-CIA agent with contacts in U.S. security agencies to find out to what degree Viernes and Domingo and their associates were being watched by U.S. and Philippine spies. One discovery was that U.S. Naval Intelligence, with interests in the Philippines because of the naval base there, had amassed a thick dossier that included information about the two organizers’ movements. The dossier included photos of the insides of one of their apartments, descriptions of their travels to the Philippines and who they met with. It included details of their successful effort at the national International Longshore Workers Union convention to get the union to investigate labor conditions in the Philippines. As one of the CJVD members remarks, it’s one thing to assume that you’re being watched, it’s another thing to be given the evidence of it in such detail!
The efforts of the committee would probably have never succeeded except for one historical coincidence: Marcos was overthrown in a nonviolent popular uprising in 1986. The new government of the Philippines was sympathetic to the civil suit, and it helped the committee both by asserting that Marcos no longer had “sovereign immunity” from prosecution as a head of state, which had been an obstacle up to that point, and supplying information from Philippine military files about how Philippine intelligence had operated in the United States. The committee was able to take a deposition from Marcos, who had taken refuge in Hawaii, although the ex-dictator died before the case was resolved. The jury found Marcos, Baruso and others liable for the killings and awarded the families of the victims several million dollars. But, as Withey says, “it was never about the money,” but rather about bringing the perpetrators to some kind of justice.
With the success of the civil suit, a new King County prosecutor brought charges against Tony Baruso; he, like the others convicted in the earlier trial, was sentenced to life in prison. However, the other culpable conspirators, including U.S. intelligence agencies, were never criminally charged or penalized.
“Summary Execution” is engrossing in its detailed account of the killings, the investigation and the trial, although Withey, as a lawyer, puts too much emphasis on courtroom maneuvers and evidence in telling the story, describing testimony chronologically at the trial rather than grouping it more organically. He also is unsuccessful in integrating a few personal experiences into the overall story — there’s not enough personal detail to make that work, although too much personal detail would probably have been distracting. But those are small faults in an otherwise well-written account.
Withey advises, “Don’t fall for the tired and defeatist notion of ‘the powerful always win, so what’s the use?’ We proved that the powerful can lose.” That’s an important lesson.
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