Man sentenced to six years in prison for murder of Brazilian journalist two decades after the crime

A popular jury condemned a man to six years in prison for participating in the murder of a Brazilian journalist in 1998. Shortly after the trial, the sentence was challenged by the public prosecutor’s office because it considered it too low.

Journalist Manoel Leal de Oliveira was shot six times in front of his home in Itabuna, in the interior of the state of Bahia, on Jan.14, 1998, as reported by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji). He was a journalist and owner of the newspaper A Região, with coverage focused on the southern region of the state.

On May 22, Marcone Rodrigues Sarmento was convicted by popular jury at the Fórum Ruy Barbosa in Salvador, which found him guilty of driving the used car in the crime, G1 reported.

The murder was perpetrated by the civilian policeman Monzar Castro Brazil, sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison, according to Abraji. Another suspect tried for the crime was acquitted on the same occasion for lack of evidence.

Prosecutor Cássio Marcelo de Melo, in charge of the case, told G1 that the public prosecutor's office (MP, for its initials in Portuguese) has already appealed the decision, considering that the sentence of six years given to Sarmento is low. He was convicted of simple homicide while the MP wanted it to be considered a qualified homicide.

According to article 121 of the Brazilian Penal Code, it is considered qualified homicide when it’s committed "through payment or promise of reward, or for another vile reason," "for treason, through ambush, or through concealment or other feature that makes make the defense of the victim impossible” and "to ensure the execution, concealment, impunity or advantage of another crime," among other aggravating factors. The penalty is 12 to 30 years of confinement.

"There was already a conviction for Monzar for qualified homicide. How is Marcone convicted of simple homicide, since he participated in the ambush along with Monzar?" the prosecutor asked in an interview with G1.

According to Bahia Notícias, the judge who presided over the hearing took two years off of the six that Sarmento received from the jury, since he had already served two years in prison, and ordered the remaining four years be served in an open regime. However, Sarmento spent two years in jail for another homicide, the site said. Those serving in an open regime are not confined to a prison, but have other restrictions on their mobility and must appear in court periodically.

The MP's appeal should be tried in about a year, G1 reported, and Sarmento will wait in freedom until all the appeals in the case are exhausted.

Marcel Leal, son of Manoel Leal de Oliveira and also a journalist, told the newspaper A Região that the conviction of Sarmento is well received, but "it is an incentive for the murder of other journalists, since it [the conviction] comes along with a ridiculous sentence of only six years in open regime. It is the message that in Brazil killing a journalist does not even lead to prison for the murderer.”

This was the second time that Sarmento was tried for this crime. In 2005, he was acquitted by a popular jury, and the acquittal was challenged by the MP and annulled by the Bahia Court of Justice, according to Abraji.

When he was killed, Manoel Leal de Oliveira was investigating alleged illegal acts of Mayor Fernando Gomes, who in 2017 began his fifth term in the administration of Itabuna, Abraji reported. The alleged irregularities would have involved police chief Gilson Prata, of whom police officer Monzar Castro Brazil, convicted in the murder, was a direct aide, the organization said.

In a report published in December 1997, Oliveira claimed that the mayor made irregular payments to Prata "to persecute secretaries of the previous administration, his opponents and policemen that bothered him," according to the newspaper A Região.

Asked by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) about the case, Gilson Prata said that Leal's denunciations "did not prosper" because "the payments had been authorized by the Bahia Public Security Secretariat," according to an undated article published on the IAPA’s website. Prata did not comment on the alleged persecution reported by the journalist.

Sarmento was the informal assistant for the then-municipal secretary of government, Maria Alice Araújo, according to the accusation from the MP. Although there are suspicions that the mayor ordered the crime, this complaint was never made for lack of evidence, Abraji said.

Fernando Gomes commented on such suspicions in a letter to the IAPA, according to an undated article published on the organization’s site. He said that "as soon as he learned of the crime he publicly declared his interest in its clarification" and that "he was never an enemy of Leal, only 'one of the dozens of victims' of the journalist."

Maria Alice Araújo did not respond to the IAPA's request to comment on the case, the article said.