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William P. Ford, 72, Rights Advocate, Dies

by Dennis Hevesi

William P. Ford, a former Wall Street lawyer who spent more than two decades seeking to bring high-ranking military officials to justice after his sister and three other American churchwomen were murdered in El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s, died on Sunday at his home in Montclair, N.J. He was 72.

The cause was esophageal cancer, his son William Ford III said.

Mr. Ford's efforts eventually led to a $54.6 million liability ruling against two former Salvadoran generals in a 2002 civil trial in Florida, where the generals were living after being granted residence by the United States.

Although the ruling was not directly connected to the murders of Mr. Ford's sister and the other women, it resulted largely from his long and tenacious campaign. The federal court jury found José Guillermo García, El Salvador's former defense minister, and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, its former National Guard commander, liable for lasting injuries suffered by three Salvadoran immigrants to the United States who were tortured under the generals' command.

"We pursued the case, with Bill in the lead," Michael Posner, president of Human Rights First, said on Monday. "In an extraordinary way, he went beyond simply grieving the loss of his sister; he became a leading advocate for justice in El Salvador."

Mr. Ford had been an influential figure in the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which in 2004 became Human Rights First.

On the night of Dec. 2, 1980, shortly after the start of El Salvador's civil war, Mr. Ford's sister, Ita , a Maryknoll sister; two other members of the same order, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel; and a lay missionary, Jean Donovan, were abducted, raped and shot to death. The next day, peasants discovered their bodies beside an isolated road and buried them in a common grave. The van they had been driving when they were stopped at a military checkpoint turned up 20 miles away, burned and gutted.

The killings came as the United States was beginning a decade-long, $7 billion aid effort to prevent left-wing guerrillas from coming to power in El Salvador, and the case quickly became the focus of a bitter policy debate about Central America.

"This particular act of barbarism," a 1993 State Department report said, "did more to inflame the debate over El Salvador in the United States than any other single incident."

In 1984, four national guardsmen were convicted of murder in El Salvador and were sentenced to 30 years in prison. After 17 years of silence, the guardsmen said they had acted after receiving "orders from above." Their admissions were made to a delegation from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, including Mr. Ford.

For years, Mr. Ford lobbied politicians and made speeches, charging that the Salvadoran government had failed to conduct even a rudimentary investigation into the murders. In 1981, he pressed his case with the American ambassador to El Salvador, Dean Hinton, and the Salvadoran president, José Napoleón Duarte.

Mr. Ford also criticized the Reagan administration. The government, he said, "is so obsessed with the East-West confrontation that they are willing to tolerate the murder of American citizens in El Salvador." The Salvadoran junta had killed more than 30,000 people, he said.

It was an unusual stance for a lawyer who had been on the staff of the New York law firm where Richard M. Nixon and John Mitchell had worked before Mr. Nixon became president and Mr. Mitchell became the attorney general. A year after his sister's murder, Mr. Ford said he had been "radicalized" by American support for a government "which is no more than a group of gangsters in uniform."

William Patrick Ford was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, on April 28, 1936, the son of William and Mildred O'Beirne Ford. Besides his son William, Mr. Ford is survived by his wife of 47 years, the former Mary Anne Heyman; another son, John; four daughters, Miriam Ford, Ruth Ford, Elizabeth Ford and Rebecca Ford; a sister, Irene Coriaty; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Ford graduated from Fordham University in 1960 and earned his law degree at St. John's University in 1966. He was a law clerk to a federal judge and later a founding partner of the law firm Ford Marrin Esposito Witmeyer & Gleser.

Litigating securities and product-liability cases took a back seat for Mr. Ford after that day in 1980. Of the American government, he said a year later, "You can't take seriously the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty if at the same time you are sending arms, ammunition, trucks and police equipment to a junta which is murdering its own citizens."

© 2008 The New York Times

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