Lawyers With Cameras = just awesome. Layda Negrete and Roberto Hernández, two Mexican lawyers who are now Berkeley PhD students, used a brilliant combination of lawyering and videro cameras to save an innocent man from serving decades in prison.
The Mexican justice system has only the most tenuous of connections to the actual investigation and punishment of crimes. Hardly any cases are investigated or prosecuted. And when the police and courts do get involved, they don’t improve things much:
“Crooked cops regularly solve cases by grabbing the first person they find, often along with a cooked-up story from someone claiming to be an eyewitness. Prosecutors and judges play along, eager to calm a growing public outcry over high crime rates and rising violence from Mexico’s war on illicit drug gangs. In practice, suspects are often presumed guilty. More than 85% of those charged with a crime are sentenced, according to Mexico’s top think tank, the Center for Investigation and Development, or CIDE. […]
Someone committing a crime in Mexico has only a two in 100 chance of getting caught and punished, according to Guillermo Zepeda, a CIDE scholar. A big reason is that just 12% of crimes are reported to the police, Mr. Zepeda says. In a big deterrent, police ask many people who report crimes for money to solve the case or become suspects themselves, Mr. Zepeda says….In more than six of every 10 cases, suspects were arrested within three hours of the crime, leaving little time for serious detective work, according to a study from CIDE. Almost none were shown an arrest warrant.”
Negrete and Hernández took on the case of Antonio Zuñiga, a street vendor who was arrested for murder while out for a walk in December 2005.
“As he crossed a busy Mexico City avenue, two burly cops grabbed him from behind and shoved him into a patrol car.
So began a nightmarish journey into Mexico’s legal system that seems lifted from the pages of Franz Kafka. For nearly two days, the street vendor was held incommunicado and not told why he was arrested. His questions met with hostile stares from detectives, who would say “You know what you did.” He says in an interview that he only learned of the charges after walking into a holding cell and being asked by a prisoner: “Are you the guy accused of murder?”
Mr. Zuñiga, then 26, was charged in the shooting death of a gang member from his neighborhood. Ballistic tests showed Mr. Zuñiga hadn’t fired a gun. Dozens of witnesses saw him working at his market stall during the time of the murder, which took place several miles away. And he had never met the victim. Still, he was found guilty by a judge at trial and sentenced to 20 years in prison.”
Zuñiga,however, was relatively lucky. Hernández and Negrete realized that the lawyer who had represented Zuñiga in his original trial was a fraudster working on a forged license, and that was enough to win him a retrial. They also got permission from the trial judge to film the entire retrial, as well as interviews with witnesses. That footage became a 90-minute documentary, Presumed Guilty. What it shows is not pretty:
“When asked by one of Mr. Zuñiga’s defense lawyers what evidence he has against Mr. Zuñiga, the detective in charge of the case says: “He’s here (in prison), right? He must have done something.” Asked by the lawyer why she was prosecuting an innocent man, the prosecutor says with a weak smile: “It’s my job.” […]
The judge, Hector Palomares dons his robe this time around and sits behind a makeshift desk. Mr. Zuñiga says Mr. Palomares never emerged from his office at his first trial. […]
At one point, the witness, Mr. Reyes, is asked by one of Mr. Zuñiga’s defense lawyers to describe the three gang members whom he’d originally accused. He describes each one. Asked to describe Mr. Zuñiga, the man he later accused, he can’t.
The detectives who arrested the street vendor and handled his case testified, but claimed they didn’t remember anything. “We have a lot of cases,” says Jose Manuel Ortega, the lead detective, shrugging his shoulders. “I can’t remember all of them.” Mr. Ortega declined to comment.
At the height of the retrial, Mr. Zuñiga confronts his accuser face-to-face. As the pair talk in stilted tones and pause so a stenographer can transcribe each word, the drama builds. Finally, Mr. Reyes admits he never saw who killed his cousin.”
Shockingly, (or perhaps not-so-shockingly, given that the retrial was heard by the same judge who had handled the original case), Zuñiga was convicted again in the retrial. However, when Negrete and Hernández appealed the decision, they also showed the appeals court a rough cut of their documentary, and the panel was so disturbed by what it showed that they overturned the verdict. They set Mr. Zuñiga free in April of 2008.
Negrete and Hernández’s work continued to make waves. They coupled their documentary with aggressive research into successful judicial reforms that had been put into place in Chile, and along with other activists they lobbied their government to put similar methods into practice in Mexico. Their success was impressive: in June of 2008, President Felipe Calderón signed a constitutional amendment that, among other things, makes trials public, and guarantees the presumption of innocence for the accused.