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Isabel Morel De Letelier, et al. v. The Republic of Chile, et al.

Court District Court for the District of Columbia, United States
Case number Civil Action No.78-1477
Decision title Memorandum Opinion
Decision date 5 November 1980
  • Isabel Morel De Letelier
  • Christian Letelier
  • Francisco Letelier
  • Juan Pablo Letelier
  • Michael Maggio
  • Michael Moffitt
  • Murray Karpen
  • Hilda Karpen
  • The Republic of Chile
  • Juan Manuel Contreras Sepulveda
  • Pedro Espinoza Bravo
  • Armando Fernandez Larios
  • Michael Vernon Townley
  • Alvin Ross Diaz
  • Guillermo Novo Sampol
  • Ignacio Novo Sampol
Categories Human rights violations
Keywords immunities (sovereign), Murder
Other countries involved
  • Chile
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Marcos Orlando Letelier del Solar was a Chilean economist, socialist politician, diplomat and foreign minister during the presidency of the socialist President Salvador Allende. He became a refugee in the United States following the military dictatorship of General August Pinochet (1973-1990). On 21 September 1977, together with Ronni Moffitt, his American aide, they were assassinated by DINA (the Chilean secret police under Pinochet) agents after an explosive device was detonated under Orlando Letelier’s automobile.

In 1978, their relatives sued Chile and several individuals allegedly involved in the case. The District Court of Washington D.C. found that it had jurisdiction over the action and found the defendants to have killed Letelier and Moffitt while acting within the scope of their employment. The Court awarded more than $5,000,000 to the families of the two victims.

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Procedural history

In 1978 Michael Townley, an American-born Chilean, was extradited from Chile to the United States where he confessed carrying out the bombing. He was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment for conspiring to murder a foreign official in May 1979, but was released early as part of a witness protection scheme.

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Related developments

Guillermo Novo Sampol and Alvin Ross Diaz, Cuban exiles living in the United States, were acquitted on 30 May 1981 on five counts related to the killing of Letelier and Moffitt, after they were convicted in 1979 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

On 12 September 1991 Virgilio Paz Romero, a Cuban exile living in the United States, was sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment for his part in the death of Orlando Letelier.

In 1993, Juan Contreras, the head of DINA (the Chilean secret police under Pinochet) was convicted in Chile.

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Legally relevant facts

On 21 September 1977 Orlando Letelier, former Chilean foreign minister, and Ronni Moffitt, his American aide, were killed in Washington D.C. in a detonation of an explosive device placed under the driver’s seat of Orlando Letelier’s automobile. The investigation revealed that the assassination was ordered either by the head of Chile’s secret police, General Manuel Contreras, or directly by the head of the then governing military junta, Augusto Pinochet.

In 1978, relatives of both the victims sued Chile and the individuals allegedly involved in the case. Chile refused to participate in the proceedings, claiming that a politically motivated assassination is a sovereign act and thus immune under the theory of state immunity. The Court rejected Chile’s argument, holding that the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act did not provide discretion for political assassination in foreign countries. In a subsequent decision, the Court awarded plaintiffs over five million dollars.

See also: Memorandum Opinion of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, 11 March 1980.

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Core legal questions

The plaintiffs asserted five claims of action on behalf of the two victims, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt:

  • Conspiracy to deprive Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt of their constitutional rights.
  • Assault and battery.
  • Negligent transportation and detonation of explosives.
  • Tortuous activities in violation of the law resulting in the death of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt.
  • Tortuous assault upon Orlando Letelier, an internationally protected person.
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Specific legal rules and provisions

US District of Columbia Code (Supp. VII 1980):

  • Section 12-101 (survival of rights of action).
  • Section 16-2701 (liability; damages; prior recovery as precluding action).

US Federal Rules of Civil Procedure:

  • Rule 4(i)(1)(d) (summons).
  • Rule 55(b)(2) (default; default judgment).

Chapter 28,  U.S. Code:

  • Section 1608(a)(4) (service; time to answer; default).

US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act:

  • Section 1605 (general exceptions to the jurisdictional immunity of a foreign state).
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Court's holding and analysis

The District Court found that it had subject matter jurisdiction over the case pursuant to U.S. Code Sections 1330, 1331, 1332(a)(3), 1343(1)-(2), 1350 and the doctrines of pendent and ancillary jurisdiction. It furthermore found that the plaintiffs had submitted satisfactory evidence to prove that the employees of the Republic of Chile, acting within the scope of their employment and at the direction of Chilean officials, committed tortuous acts of assault and battery and negligent transportation and detonation of explosives which were the proximate cause for the deaths of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt.

With regards to damages arising from Orlando Letelier’s death, the District Court awarded the following sums:

  • $30,000 for pain and suffering
  • $1,000,000 as punitive damages
  • $1,526,479 for wrongful death

With regard to damages arising from Ronni Moffitt’s death, the District Court awarded the following sums:

  • $80,000 for pain and suffering
  • $1,000,000 as punitive damages
  • $916,096 for wrongful death

Michael Moffitt, the widower of Ronni Moffitt, was granted only damages as to pain and suffering, amounting to $400,000.

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

Other cases related to sovereign immunity for international crimes:

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Additional materials