BELEM, Brazil – Two Brazilian men were convicted Saturday of killing an American nun who spent decades trying to save the Amazon rain forest, in a trial many saw as a test of Brazil's commitment to prosecuting land-related killings.
Rayfran das Neves Sales and Clodoaldo Carlos Batista were found guilty of killing Dorothy Stang on Feb. 12 in the heart of the Amazon rain forest.
The seven-member jury sentenced Sales, who shot Stang six times with a .38 caliber revolver on a muddy road, to 27 years in prison. Batista, charged as an accomplice, was sentenced to 17 years. The men had faced up to 30 years in prison.
Stang, 73, was killed in Para state, which is notorious across Brazil for corruption and land-related violence that in the past 20 years has claimed the lives of some 534 people. Before Saturday, only eight killers had ever been convicted.
"We think it's just the beginning, but it's a great beginning," said the nun's brother, David Stang, 68, who flew from his home in Colorado to attend the trial.
Prosecutor Esdon Cardoso said the case would only be resolved when three other men accused in the killing are convicted, including two ranchers accused of ordering the killing. A third man has been charged with acting as a go-between for the gunmen and the ranchers. The three are expected to face trial some time next year.
Under Brazilian law, any first offender sentenced to more than 20 years is automatically granted a new trial, so Sales will be retried later.
On Friday, both defendants recanted earlier confessions. Sales said he acted in self-defense, believing Stang was reaching for a gun as she pulled out a Bible. Batista said he did not know about plans to kill her.
Prosecutors alleged Sales and Batista were offered $25,000 by ranchers to kill the nun, and shot her at close range while she read her Bible.
Sales acknowledged that his employer, Amair Feijoli, had given him the gun and told him to kill the nun a day earlier. But both men denied being offered money to kill her.
Stang, born in Dayton, Ohio, was a nun with the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and spent the last 30 years of her life working with poor settlers in the Amazon rain forest, helping them gain land and protect the environment.
Her efforts earned her the enmity of powerful loggers and ranchers, who routinely hire "pistoleiros" to harass and often kill settlers who get in their way.
During the trial, prosecutors showed videotaped reconstructions of the crime.
"Even getting a conviction for the gunmen is a victory in the state of Para," said Felicio Pontes Jr., a federal prosecutor who has been involved in the case since the beginning.
But he warned public interest could ebb after the initial convictions, jeopardizing efforts to convict the masterminds of the killing.
"Only popular pressure made it possible to bring these men to trial less than a year after the killing, and that pressure has to be maintained if we want to see those accused of ordering the killing brought to trial," he said.
A Senate commission decided the killing was part of a wider conspiracy involving a number of ranchers, but little has been done to follow up on their investigation.
Sales' mother watched the last day of the trial in tears.
"I am suffering because I want my son, and her (Stang's) family is suffering too," Raimunda Rodrigues dos Santos said before the verdict was reached.