Parallels
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Sat August 9, 2014

Letter From Beyond The Grave: A Tale Of Love, Murder And Brazilian Law

Originally published on Sun August 10, 2014 4:23 am

The story of Lenira de Oliveira and her dead lover's letter is a tale of Brazil. It's a story of love, jealousy, forgiveness, life after death and the criminal court system. And it's true — though it sounds like fiction.

It sounds, in particular, like the work of the late Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

The novelist once said that the inspiration for his books came from daily life in his region. "Surrealism runs through the streets," he said. "Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America."

This story could be ripped straight from one of his novels. It has a criminal, his lover, her lover, a murder, a court case and a medium.

But it begins in the least romantic place you can imagine: a tiny office in an old building in a rural city called Uberaba, northwest of Sao Paulo.

Oliveira And Her Lovers

Rondon de Lima, the defense attorney in the case, tells the story. He's a lawyer with a wide wolfish grin, slicked-back silver hair and the dapper dress sense of a man more suited to a Paris cafe than an agricultural city.

The tale begins, as many do, with a relationship gone sour. In this case, it centers on a woman named Lenira de Oliveira. Her man was a crime boss, João Rosa, the head of an illegal gambling operation.

"She was very much in love with João Rosa," de Lima says. "But he couldn't be only with her. It was her and two, three other women."

Oliviera starts seeing another man, an ex-cop. But Rosa — though he had other women — can't accept losing Lenira.

He is consumed with jealousy. One night he follows Oliveira and her new boyfriend. A shootout ensues but it is Rosa — and not the lovers — who is killed. The ex-cop and Oliviera are charged with murder.

Here, things get otherworldly. Lenira is riven with guilt — she still loved Rosa — and so she goes to see a medium, a very famous one. She receives a letter from Rosa from the beyond.

"In the letter, channeled by this medium, the deceased confesses," de Lima explains. "He says his jealousy was the reason for his death. The letter includes details that only people close to him could have known."

This letter is then submitted by the defense to the court to exonerate the accused.

One more time: a letter channeled by a medium, supposedly written by a murdered crime boss to his ex-lover, is admitted in a Brazilian court of law.

Exhibit A

Judge Hertha Helena Rollemberg Padilha de Oliveira (no relation to Lenira) says there are many cases involving spirits in Brazil.

"If the proof is not illegal, it is lawful — you have to accept it in the process," she says.

So when individuals present letters from the dead, written by a medium, de Oliveira says the judge has to accept it. "He has to accept the proof in the process," she says. "He can't say, 'Take the letter away from the process.' "

"[Brazil] is a very spiritual society," the judge explains. "Ninely percent of people probably will believe in some kind of spiritual influence. Most of the people believe in life after death."

Life after death is one thing; being able to communicate with the dead is another. But it's an accepted practice in Brazil.

The reason why revolves around a religion called Spiritism. Brazil has more practitioners than any place in the world — almost 4 million and growing. And, as it happens, its center is the city where the court case took place: Uberaba.

Meet A Spiritist Medium

At 5 a.m. inside a modest building in a residential neighborhood, a service is being held. Eighty people are huddled under blankets on this cold rainy day. In the front of the sort of chapel sits a man writing letters.

His name is Carlos Baccelli. Trained as a dentist, he has been a medium since his youth, when he started having out-of-body experiences. He's the main medium here, and he channeled the letter used in the recent court case.

If you are thinking Victorian table-rapping and séances, then you aren't too far wrong. But this isn't remotely like a neon sign advertising a palm reading for five bucks.

This is a religion; no money changes hands. Spiritists believe in reincarnation, but also in Jesus' Gospel.

The associate mediums come around to the congregation and lay their hands on members while the song "Feelings" plays in the background. The mediums are supposed to be transferring spiritual energy.

It's suddenly my turn. A woman waves her hands over my head and upper body. I don't know if it's the power of suggestion or the music, but I feel a buzzing.

All eyes are now on the podium. Baccelli starts to read out the letters he has channeled from the dead.

One letter, in particular, features a lot of detail. In it, the spirit explains that he was drunk when he was hit by the car that killed him; the letter details exactly how it happened.

As the message is read, a group of people next to me begins to cry.

Gisele Fernanda Bardasi tells me her husband was run over by a car four months ago. Next to her, one of her three daughters quietly sobs.

"It is my first time here," she says. "I was desperate. I wanted to know what happened. It was a big question because we were together, and suddenly we found him dead on the road."

The letter, she says, has given her comfort.

A Jury Of Believers

At the end I ask Baccelli if he remembers the letter he channeled that was used in the court case.

"No. Sincerely, I don't remember," he says. "The letter is given and the way the family uses it. If they keep it, throw away or rip it — we don't know."

Baccelli says he believes the letters should be used only as a last resort in legal cases. They are written to comfort the families and sometimes bring a little clarification.

He explains that he never knows which spirit will speak through him or why.

"I don't know what the spirit will say. For example, I don't know how he will end a sentence," Baccelli says. "Sometimes he is writing and I'm thinking: How is this sentence going to be finished?"

Back at the lawyer's office, defense attorney Rondon de Lima says he used the letter because it's not the judge who decides a criminal case, but the jury.

He says everyone in this city believes in the spirits and will take a letter like that seriously.

In the end, the lovers were indeed acquitted. Was it because of the letter? We'll never know. De Lima says there was overwhelming evidence — the forensic kind — that Lenira's new boyfriend acted in self-defense.

I ask him if he believes that these letters from the dead are real.

"Do I believe?" he says. "I confess I do."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The late Gabriel Garcia-Marquez once said that the inspiration for his books came from daily life in his region. Surrealism runs through the streets, he said in an interview in 1973. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.

The story I'm going to tell you today that is one that could be ripped straight from one of his novels. It has a criminal, his lover, her lover, a murder, a court case and a medium. This is a story about Brazil. But it begins in the least romantic place you can imagine - a tiny office in an old building in a rural city called Uberaba northwest of Sao Paulo. Rondon de Lima is a lawyer with a wide, wolfish grin, slicked-back silver hair and the dapper dress sense of a man more suited to a Paris cafe than an agricultural city.

This tale begins as many do; with a relationship gone sour. In this case, her name was Lenira de Oliviera. Her man was a crime boss, the head of an illegal gambling operation here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) She was very much in love with Joao Rosa. But he couldn't be only with her. It was her and two, three other women.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oliviera started seeing another man; an ex-cop.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) But Joao Rosa, although he had other women, he doesn't accept losing Lenira.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He is consumed with jealousy. One night he follows Lenira de Oliviera and her new boyfriend. A shootout ensues but it is the crime boss and not the lovers who is killed. The ex-cop and Oliviera are charged with murder. And this is when things get otherworldly. Lenira is riven with guilt. She still loved him, you see. And so she goes to see a medium, a very famous one. And she receives a letter from Joao Rosa, the gambling kingpin from the beyond, de Lima says.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) In the letter channeled by this medium the deceased confesses. He says his jealousy was the reason for his death. The letter includes details that only people close to him could have known.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this letter is then submitted by the defense to the court to exonerate the accused. Let me repeat that - a letter, channeled by a medium, supposedly written by a murdered crime boss to his ex-lover is admitted in a Brazilian court of law.

PADILHA DE OLIVIERA: My name is Hertha Helena Rollemberg Padilha de Oliviera. I'm a judge.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Judge Hertha says, there are many cases involving spirits in Brazil.

PADILHA DE OLIVIERA: If the proof is not illegal - it's lawful - you have to accept it in the process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So if I come with a letter written by a medium from a dead person purporting that this crime wasn't committed or saying that I wasn't the person who did the crime, the judge has to accept it?

PADILHA DE OLIVIERA: He has to accept it - the proof - in the process. He can't say, take the letter away from the process - in the process, no, he can't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think this happens here in Brazil? Do think it's because Brazil is a more spiritual society?

PADILHA DE OLIVIERA: Yes. Of course. This is a - it's a very spiritual society. Probably 90 percent of the people probably will believe in something in - some kind of a spiritual influence. And most of the - I think most of the people believe in life after death.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Life after death is one thing - being able to communicate with the dead is another. But it's an accepted practice in Brazil. To understand why, you have to delve into religion called Spiritism. Brazil has more practitioners than any place in the world, almost four million and growing. And as it happens, its center is the city where the court case took place, Uberaba.

We arrive at a modest building in a residential neighborhood where a service is being held. Its 5 a.m.

Here this morning, 80 people are huddled on this cold rainy predawn day under blankets in a sort of chapel. In the front of the room sits a man writing letters.

His name is Carlos Baccelli. He's the main medium here and he channeled the letter used in the recent court case. So briefly, if you're thinking Victorian table rapping and séances, then actually, you aren't far wrong. But this isn't at all your neon sign advertising a palm reading for five bucks. This is a religion. No money changes hands. Spiritists believe in reincarnation but also in Jesus's gospel.

Right now some of the associate mediums are coming around to the congregation and laying their hands on them and it's supposed to be transferring spiritual energy; this all to the the tune of "Feelings."

It's suddenly my turn. A woman waves her hands over my head and upper body - I don't know if it's the power of suggestion or the music, but I feel a buzzing. All eyes are now on the podium. Baccelli starts to read out the letters he has channeled from the dead. One in particular catches my attention, it has a lot of detail.

CARLOS BACCELLI: (Speaking foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The spirit explains that he was drunk when he was hit by the car that killed him. The letter details exactly how it happened. As the message is read, a group of people next to me begin to cry.

Gisele Fernanda Bardasi tells me her husband was run over by a car four months ago. Next to her, one of her three daughters quietly sobs.

GISELE FERNANDA BARDASI: (Through translator) It is my first time here. I was desperate. I wanted to know what happened. It was a big question because we were together and suddenly we found him dead on the road.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The letter, she says, has given her comfort. At the end I ask Carlos Baccelli, the medium, if he remembers the letter he channeled that was used in the court case.

BACCELLI: (Through translator) No. Sincerely, I don't remember. The letter is given and the way the family uses it - if they keep it, throw it away or rip it - we don't know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Baccelli says, he believes that letters should only be used as a last resort in a legal case. They are written to comfort the families and sometimes even bring a little clarification. Baccelli was trained as a dentist. But he's been a medium since his youth, when he started having out of body experiences. He explains that he never knows which spirit will speak through him, or why.

BACCELLI: (Through translator) I don't know what the spirit will say. For example, I don't know how he will end a sentence. Sometimes he is writing and I'm thinking, how is this sentence going to be finished?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at the lawyer's office, Rondon de Lima tells me he used the letter because it's not the judge who decides a criminal case, but the jury. And he says, everyone in the city believes in the spirits and will take a letter like that seriously.

In the end, the lovers were indeed acquitted. But was it because of the letter? We'll never know. De Lima says there without overwhelming evidence - the forensic kind - that the ex-policeman acted in self-defense. I ask him if he believes that these letters from the dead are real.

RONDON DE LIMA: (Speaking foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do I believe, he says? I confess, I do.

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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