The Escamilla Case in Court


  • Andreas G. Ronhovde





The issue of U.S. Criminal jurisdiction to try Mario J. Escamilla for the alleged slaying of Bennie Lightsy, station manager on ice island T-3 (Fletcher's Ice Island) on 16 July 1970 was argued before U.S. Federal District Judge Oren R. Lewis in Alexandria, Virginia, on 5 May 1971. The judge found sufficient grounds for taking jurisdiction and proceeded with the trial. Escamilla was then convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He has appealed. Following are some observations on the jurisdictional aspect of the case. 1) It was evident throughout the hearings that the presiding judge wished, if possible, to decide the jurisdictional issue exclusively on the basis of U.S. domestic law, and that he was not disposed to address himself to abstruse questions of international law, once the Canadian waiver was on the record. At no point, therefore, did he express firm views on such matters as the international legal significance of T-3's origin, the possibility of permanent "possession" of such an island, the implications of a "ship" analogy as such for ice islands as a class, distinctions if any between ice islands and occupiable ice floes, and a host of other theoretical questions of universal, or at least arctic, applicability that might be considered of interest to an international lawyer. 2) In view of the very real, long continued, and unchallenged activities of U.S. Government agencies and Government grantees on T-3, the factual close connection between that particular ice platform and U.S. interests was so clear that the finding of proper criminal jurisdiction in the Escamilla case should probably not be given too broad a theoretical application. 3) One may argue that the case illustrated the extreme narrowness of the exclusively territorial basis for criminal jurisdiction (exceptions were noted) and that the judge was so troubled at the consequences of applying its pure logic in the Escamilla case that he chose instead to proceed on the basis of practical common sense and social responsibility, leaving it to others to split hairs over the meaning of commas in Section 7 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code or the analogies of ice islands with ships, guano islands, or commercial aircraft flying over the high seas.