updated 6/29/2006 9:10:46 PM ET 2006-06-30T01:10:46

Brazil's Supreme Court ordered the release Thursday of a rancher who had been jailed pending trial in connection with the killing last year of American nun Dorothy Stang.

The Supreme Court voted 3-2 to release Regivaldo Pereira Galvao, one of two ranchers accused of ordering the Feb. 12, 2005, killing of Stang, a native of Dayton, Ohio, in a dispute over land in the Amazon rain forest.

The court said in a statement his pretrial imprisonment was illegal because Galvao did not represent a threat to society or a significant flight risk.

Galvao had been in jail since April 7, 2005, after one of the men later convicted of killing the 73-year-old nun linked him to the crime.

Lawyers for Galvao said their client should be released by Friday.

"He didn't do any of the things they said he did," lawyer Marco Antonio Araujo told Globo television.

‘I am dumbfounded’
But lawyers for the Stang family denounced the decision, saying it was a discredit to the Brazilian legal system.

"You've got testimony on the public record that he (Galvao) ordered her killing and paid for it. By American standards that's not a lot of justice being done," Brent Rushforth, an American lawyer who is advising the Stang family, said from Washington.

Stang's relatives said they were shocked.

"I am dumbfounded. This is a man whose involvement in the killing has been documented in a trial. There's no doubt about his duplicity," the nun's brother David Stang said from his home near Colorado Springs, Colo. "My sister loved Brazil, she loved the Amazon, she loved the constitution. This decision is an insult to her and to the family."

So far three men — two gunmen and an intermediary — have been convicted in Stang's killing. But Pereira and another rancher, Vitalmiro Moura, who the convicted men said ordered the killing, have so far managed to avoid trial through legal maneuvering.

Calls to Pereira's attorney were not answered.

Rushforth said he feared Galvao would flee the country, following the example of another prominent rancher, Jeronimo Alves Amorim, charged with ordering the 1991 killing of a prominent union leader in the same Amazon region.

Area notorious for violence, slave labor
The southern Para region of the Amazon rain forest where Stang was killed is notorious for land-related violence and the use of slave labor to clear jungle. It is a largely lawless region, where ranchers are deeply entwined with local politicians, police and judges.

Over the past 20 years, more than 500 peasants, union leaders and activists like Stang have been shot dead but only 10 cases have ever gone to trial, according to the Roman Catholic Church.

While a number of gunmen have been convicted in connection with these killings, powerful ranchers rarely go to trial.

Stang spent the last 23 years of her life in the region building schools and defending poor settlers and teaching them to respect the rain forest. Her efforts earned her the enmity of ranchers in a region where hired gunmen routinely evict settlers on the strength of forged land titles.

The disputed patch of forest is near Anapu, a muddy town on the Trans-Amazon highway 1,250 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. She wanted to preserve it; Galvao and Moura wanted to cut it down.

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