Judge sees witness credibility problem at Rubashkin trial
BY JENS MANUEL KROGSTAD • Des Moines Register
The defense has doggedly questioned why so many former workers gave several different ages to officials after a May 2008 immigration raid at Agriprocessors Inc. in Postville. They have also asked why most of the former workers don't remember interviews with state investigators over the same time period.
Black Hawk County District Associate Judge Nathan Callahan said the defense, in his opinion, had successfully questioned the credibility of those witnesses.
"When you've got somebody who gets on the stand and says, 'I don't remember talking to anybody, ever,' it's a credibility problem if they've given a bunch of interviews," Callahan said during a discussion with the defense and prosecution after the jury had left the courtroom for the day.
Rubashkin, a former plant executive, faces 83 misdemeanor child-labor charges. The state alleges he allowed minors to work excessive hours, and around poisonous chemicals and dangerous machinery.
After the jury left the courtroom, defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown asked the prosecution to turn over all evidence - if it hadn't already - related to interviews of witnesses by government agents.
"We're confronted with a roadblock of amnesia regarding the existence of these interviews," he said.
Callahan, however, told Brown that he had no reason to believe the prosecution had withheld any evidence that might aid Rubashkin's defense.
The fourth day of state witnesses included more testimony from young people who said they worked with bleach, sharp knives and other dangerous meat- processing equipment.
Yukary Hernandez Gonzalez, now 20, said her protective frock once caught on a conveyor belt, which then dragged her hand down the line.
"My hand started turning purple. I started yelling," she said.
A co-worker eventually cut the sleeve off the frock to free her. She suffered bruises on her hand and continued working without medical care, she said.
Noe Castillo Ordonez said the plant rejected his job application several times because he appeared too young. Most other witnesses have said Agriprocessors hired them the first time they applied for a job.
The plant finally hired him, Ordonez said, when he produced a birth certificate that supposedly proved his age.
"I tried many times, but I don't know exactly how many," he said.
Ordonez also appeared to not know how old he was when a state prosecutor asked his age, and said he did not remember any interviews with government investigators.
All the workers said they lied about their ages to get jobs at the plant, and some have had trouble figuring out their ages on certain past dates. Ordonez was the first witness unable to correctly give his current age.
Ordonez always stated the same birthday in December 1990, but told the prosecutor he's 20 years old, because "I'm starting my 20th year" in 2010.
"I want to make sure I understand accurately, because I'm confused now. Do you know for a fact what your date of birth is?" said Deputy Iowa Attorney General Thomas H. Miller.
"It's the 16th of December, 1990," Ordonez said through an interpreter.
Miller asked him how long he went to school and whether he'd learned his "addition and subtraction." Ordonez said he had, and that he attended school for five years in Guatemala.
I think this speaks to the judge's grasp – or lack of it – of how these witnesses and their families lived.