Through the powerful testimony of the Cuban forensic pathologist, Yleana Vizcaíno Dimé, the prosecution proved to the jury—today—that the death in Havana of Fabio Di Celmo on September 4, 1997 was a homicide.
Dr. Vizcaíno testified in El Paso that Fabio Di Celmo died from “a mortal wound that necessarily caused massive hemorrhaging that was impossible to stop.” The defense counsel could not impeach her testimony. Consequently, her sworn statements stand as irrefutable evidence in the trial against Luis Posada Carriles.
Who is Dr. Yleana Vizcaíno?
The Cuban doctor took the stand this morning. She came dressed in a black suit with a white blouse. The prosecutor, Timothy J. Reardon, III, began his direct examination of the witness. Immediately, he asked her to “describe to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury the type of work [she] did in Cuba.” In a clear voice, Dr. Vizcaíno replied, “I’m a forensic pathologist at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Havana.” Reardon then asked her how long she had been practicing medicine. “I’ve been a doctor for 21 years, 18 of which have been dedicated to forensic pathology,” she said as she looked at the jury.
Dr. Vizcaíno went on to tell the jurors that she graduated in 1989 from the Higher Institute of Medical Sciences in Havana. She also told them that she did a four-year medical internship at a clinic in the eastern province of Granma in Cuba. Among several graduate degrees, she also acquired one in the field of bioethics. “My responsibilities now are to organize, plan, oversee and manage all activities at Havana’s Institute of Legal Medicine,” said Dr. Vizcaíno.
Aware that Posada Carriles’ attorney is so suspicious that he believes that virtually everyone who lives on the island is in some way affiliated with the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, the prosecutor launched a preventive strike. “Doctor, tell us if the Institute of Public Health is part of the Interior Ministry,” he said. A bit surprised by the question, the doctor responded, “No. The Institute of Public health is affiliated with Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health.”
The Autopsy of Fabio Di Celmo
Reardon asked Dr. Vizcaíno to recall the events of September 4, 1997. “You performed an autopsy that day on Fabio Di Celmo?” “Yes, I did—at 8:00 p.m. I was assisted by Dr. Marcia Espinosa,” she answered.
“I show you a document that the court has marked as Exhibit # 116H. Do you recognize it and can you identify it?” Reardon asked. “Yes,” she answered, “it’s the document that certifies that I performed the autopsy of Fabio Di Celmo on September 4, 1997.”
“Please give us a brief summary of the autopsy results,” the prosecutor asked the doctor. Dr. Vizcaíno summarized the report with these words, “We performed the autopsy at 8:00 p.m. on September 4, 1997 and found very small abrasions—scratches—that had no relation whatsoever with the cause of death. However, we also found two sizable wounds: one that was 10.5 centimeters long and 5 centimeters wide, and a second one with similar characteristics, but 8 centimeters long and 8 centimeters wide. The cause of death was irreversible hypovolemic shock. In other words, profuse arterial hemorrhaging caused by a mortal wound from a metallic object with sharp, jagged borders. The object was of considerable size. The death was inevitable and violent, caused by the velocity with which the metallic object was launched by the shock waves from the explosion, crashing within the neurovascular bundle and paravertebral vessels.”
Still looking at the jurors as she spoke, Dr. Vizcaíno told them that the death of Fabio Di Celmo was therefore classified as “a homicide.”
Without yet showing the jurors the autopsy report itself, prosecutor Reardon now showed the witness several photographs of the body of Fabio Di Celmo. One photo showed the abrasions on the left arm of the deceased. Another showed the wounds on his right thigh. Both photographs included a ruler to gauge the size of the wounds. “I placed the ruler on the wounds,” said Dr. Vizcaíno.
The photos of the deceased
Reardon then asked the judge to accept the photographs as evidence, so the jurors on their individual television monitors could also see them. “So ordered,” ruled Judge Kathleen Cardone. The jurors carefully studied the first photograph: one that showed the decedent’s arm. “These abrasions had nothing to do with the death of Mr. Di Celmo,” the doctor told the jury.
The next photograph was classified as Government’s Exhibit #116a. “This is a photo of the cadaver of Fabio Di Celmo,” she told the jury. “You can see that his wounds have been sutured,” she added, pointing to the stitches that were evident on the body. The jurors inched closer to the monitors to try and get a better look at Fabio Di Celmo’s neck and its noticeable autopsy incision.
Earlier in the day and prior to Dr. Vizcaíno taking the stand, the defense attorney Rhonda Anderson had requested that the judge not allow the jury to see this particular photograph. She argued, “The autopsy incision enlarged the size of the wound and thus might inflame the jury.” Attorney Anderson also wanted to exclude the autopsy report from being admitted into evidence. She told Judge Cardone, “The Cuban forensic pathologist has no personal knowledge that Di Celmo died from a metallic shrapnel hurled by an explosion.” Revealing a shallow understanding of physics and medical science, attorney Anderson said to the Judge, “The metallic object could have been thrown at Mr. Di Celmo by someone.”
“Mr. Di Celmo is not available to comment on the cause of his death”
Prosecutor Reardon stood. He walked toward the podium, while looking at Ms. Anderson who was slowly making her way back to defense counsel table, and offered a sardonic response to her arguments. “Unfortunately, Your Honor, Mr. Di Celmo is not available to comment on the cause of his own death and this is why it is necessary to use the autopsy report.”
To no one’s surprise, the judge rejected Attorney Anderson’s arguments and admitted the autopsy report into evidence, as well as the post-autopsy photograph showing Di Celmo’s neck wounds. The jurors stared at their television monitors, captivated by the images, their eyes focused on Di Celmo’s corpse. The prosecutor then allowed them time to carefully read the autopsy report on their television monitors.
“Who wrote this report?” asked Reardon. “I wrote it,” Vizcaíno answered.
“No further questions, Your Honor. I pass this witness over to the defense,” said the prosecutor.
Attorney Rhonda Anderson
The job of cross-examining Dr. Vizcaíno went to defense attorney Rhonda Anderson, rather than to Arturo Hernández who usually handles cross-examinations. Throughout nearly the entire trial, Anderson has sat at Hernández’s side, behind her small Mac laptop, researching, writing and managing the hundreds of exhibits that are part of this case. She looks to be more comfortable behind her personal computer than in front of another human being.
Attorney Anderson is a pale woman, with short hair. Like the Brazilian consejero in one of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels, she is so thin that she seems to be always in profile. Her gaze is stern. It looks as if smiles rarely cross her face. With a certain embarrassed unease, she approached the podium and addressed the witness. “Welcome to the United States,” she said with a marked southern twang. Dr. Vizcaíno responded with a reserved, “Gracias.”
This case marks a historic collaboration between the governments of the United States and Cuba. The U.S. Department of Justice is using witnesses and evidence from Cuba to prosecute a former CIA agent who has spent decades waging a dirty war against the Cuban people. Posada Carriles’ long criminal history includes the downing of a Cuban passenger airliner with 73 people on board, assassination attempts against Cuba’s president and other Cuban government officials and a terrorist bombing campaign meant to undermine the Cuban tourism industry. Did Posada Carriles appreciate the welcome his lawyer offered the forensic pathologist from Cuba?
The failed effort of Posada’s attorney
The script that Posada Carriles’ legal team has been following is to engage in character assassination of the witnesses to raise doubts about their credibility. Lead defense attorney, Arturo Hernández, opened fire on all the witnesses and evidence from Cuba even before this case began, “It flows from a poisoned well,” he told a Miami television host.
This afternoon, the task of impeaching Dr. Vizcaíno fell to attorney Rhonda Anderson. It didn’t go well. The defense attorney began by trying to establish that Dr. Vizcaíno does not have experience in traumatic wound cases (and that consequently the doctor is not competent to testify about the cause of Fabio Di Celmo’s death).
“When you did your medical internship in Cuba, in which areas of medicine did you practice?” asked Anderson. The doctor responded that she worked in a rural hospital in Cuba’s Granma Province and that she was in charge of deliveries and other matters associated with gynecology and obstetrics. Anderson seized on this remark to ask, “Then you didn’t work on emergency trauma cases, isn’t that correct?”
But the defense attorney guessed wrong. Dr. Vizcaíno, with a puzzled look on her face, answered that she had indeed attended trauma cases during her medical internship. Attorney Anderson looked deflated. She’d miscalculated. Had this been a baseball game with the attorney at the bat, the umpire would have called Strike One.
Trying to gather herself, the defense counsel showed the witness a photograph, evidently taken many years ago, of the Cira García Central Clinic in Havana, the hospital where Fabio Di Celmo was taken immediately after the explosion at the hotel. She asked Dr. Vizcaíno, “Do you recognize this clinic? Isn’t it the Circa [sic] García Clinic?” The photo was old and only showed a partial view of the hospital so that at first the doctor had difficulty recognizing it.
“I believe it’s the clinic’s building,” she said with some apprehension. Wanting to besmirch the Cuban medical system and allege, among other things, that it is discriminatory, Anderson asked, “That clinic is not for the Cuban people. Isn’t that true?”
At that Reardon stood up and objected. With some annoyance, the government counsel told the judge that Anderson had posed an inappropriate, impertinent and irrelevant question.
“Where do you want to take us with this question?” Judge Cardone asked attorney Anderson. “There,” answered Anderson hesitantly, as if it to state that she would take that line of questioning no further. The judge sustained the prosecutor’s objection and disallowed the question. Strike Two.
Now showing worry—and in the hole with two strikes against her—Anderson anxiously shuffled some papers, much as a nervous batter kicks at the dirt near the plate. She looked in the direction of her lead counsel who beckoned for her. The defense team consulted for half a minute, and Anderson returned to the plate.
Bringing instructions from counsel table, she asked, “The wound in Di Celmo’s neck is an incision?” The witness gave her a precise and scientific response. “It is a penetrating incision. A penetrating cut. For this reason I used the term penetrating incision in the autopsy report.”
Attorney Anderson swung with her last question of the day, “Wouldn’t it have been possible to stop the bleeding if someone at the hospital had applied compression to Mr. Di Celmo’s neck in time?”
“The hemorrhage was extremely serious. That’s why his death was inevitable. It was a mortal wound by necessity,” answered the forensic pathologist.
“I have no more questions,” said Attorney Anderson sheepishly. Strike Three?
It’s hard to impeach an articulate and knowledgeable witness.
Dr. Yleana Vizcaíno Dimé will soon return to Havana, leaving behind in El Paso—as evidence—her sworn statements that the bomb that went off in the Copacabana Hotel on September 4, 1997, violently hurled metal shrapnel that cut the jugular vein of a 32-year-old-young man named Fabio Di Celmo. This caused irreversible massive bleeding that took his life in minutes.
In a few days, the government will play a recording for the jury of an interview that Luis Posada Carriles gave to the New York Times in June of 1998, the one in which he boasts of having been the mastermind of the murder.
Posada: “Nothing happened, but it cut the jugular”
The journalist who interviewed Posada Carriles is Ann Louise Bardach. She taped parts of the interview. By way of a subpoena duces tecum (one for production of documentary evidence), the prosecutors forced her to turn over the tapes.
Posada Carriles’ answers to Bardach’s questions are quite damning. He readily admits that one of his bombs killed Di Celmo, but blames the victim for his misfortune. After all, he had the bad luck to put himself “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Using the twisted logic of criminals, Posada said of the murder of Fabio Di Celmo, “Nothing happened, but the jugular was cut.” Here is a segment of that June 17, 1998 interview, as published by the government in the federal court electronic records system:
Luis Posada Carriles: I, I tried to… to blow up ships in some other places.
Ann Louise Bardach: Oh.
Posada: Not to blow up.
Posada: Let me explain to you. In the… in the bombing, in the… in the hotels…
Posada: …we tried, we put small explosives.
Posada: We don’t… because we don’t want to hurt anybody.
Posada: Just to make a big scandal. And… that the tourists don’t come… anymore.
Posada: Why? We can’t put a… put bombs and explosives and blow up the whole…
Bardach: Yeah. …but this is not…
Posada: Yeah. …our…
Bardach: Oh, I understand. So, in other words, with the tourist bombings, it’s because in the book, you know… I read this about how upset you were about the tourism…
Bardach: You know? And remember I was telling you how different Cuba is, with the money that’s coming from tourism? I told you.
Bardach: As you know… uhm, so you were saying… so, what you wanted, the intention was to scare off the tourists… Yeah. Not to kill the tourists. Sure.
Bardach: But one, you know one person was killed.
Posada: Yeah, but, you know what happened? No. Sixty feet away… Sixty feet away…there was a poor guy… sit down in a… in… and took the jugular (Noise.). This is el más fatal del mundo (he is the unluckiest in the world)… because it wasn’t [UI]… [UI]. Nothing happened… but it took the jugular…. triste, vaya. It’s sad.
Bardach: Okay. Un momentico. (Noise; microphone or tape.) Pobrecito.
Posada: a… chair… Yeah. And the bits… small… Shrapnel… tiny piece. [UI]..and took the jugular (Noise.). This is the worst luck ever… because it wasn’t [UI]… [UI]. Nothing happened… but it took the jugular. A piece of shrapnel. [UI]. And this, this is what happened. I know. [UI]. This is… this is, uhm… uhm… [UI]… Sad, see. It’s sad. Yeah. It’s sad because, uhm… [UI], I want to put……it’s not intentional, but we can’t stop because… uhm, right then Italian was sit down (Noise.)… in the [UI], at the wrong time and the wrong place
Bardach: Okay. Just a minute. (Noise; microphone or recorder.) Poor man.
Posada: Yes. Yeah, uhm… he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Posada Carriles later added during the interview that he had no remorse about the death of Fabio Di Celmo. “I sleep like a baby,” he said.
And sleep like a baby is what he has done throughout the trial in El Paso: he dozes in his chair as though nothing were going on. Today he didn’t even look at the screen to see Fabio Di Celmo’s prone corpse. Nor was he the least bit bothered by the testimony about Fabio Di Celmo’s cause of death—shrapnel from one of his own bombs. Posada Carriles slept like a baby all the way through the testimony.
José Pertierra practices law in Washington, DC. He represents the government of Venezuela in the case to extradite Luis Posada Carriles.
Translated by Machetera and Manuel Talens. They are members of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity.