Sunday, March 06, 2011

A Weapon In the Courtroom

[Warning: Contains spoilers.]

Despite the 2,500 posts worth of evidence to the contrary, the members of our editorial board aren't complete, naive idiots. We have a pretty decent idea of the terrible things that go on in the world - and in Mexico. Bureaucratic inertia in general, and judicial reform in particular, is something we've had a professional interest in since back before it was cool.

So when we finally watched the film "Presumed Guilty" yesterday, it presented us with not a single fact of which we were unaware. And still, it was the most shocking thing we've seen in quite some time. If you have a spare 88 minutes today, we urge you to sit down and watch it. If you don't, we urge you to cancel whatever stupid plans you've made, and sit down and watch it. Seriously, what's so fucking important that you can't sit still for an hour and a half? We'll put it right here. All you have to do it click. And it's subtitled in English.

Mexico's jails are full of innocent people; people who never saw the evidence against them; who never met the judge that sentenced them; who, from the moment they were picked up, were presumed guilty, because the presumption of innocence doesn't exist here; whose trial, if they even got one, was at best farcical and at worst criminal. We knew this. But, holy shit, there's something remarkable about actually seeing it happen before your eyes.

Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete, attorneys for José Antonio Zúñiga - who, despite having spent two and a half years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, is our nominee for Luckiest Man in Mexico - managed to get a court order allowing them to film Zúñiga's trial (actually, retrial - they'd gotten his murder conviction thrown out after discovering that his previous lawyer was not actually a lawyer [see previous comment re: Luckiest Man in Mexico]). Neither the judge nor the prosecutor are pleased about this. The arresting officers [below] spend much of their on-camera time howling in protest that they are being filmed without their consent. It's almost as if they have some small sense of shame about the fact they are deliberately sending an innocent man to jail for murder.

Just kidding! As the trial unfolds, with cameras rolling, neither the cops, nor the prosecutor, nor most shamefully the judge, makes any attempt to pretend that the proceedings are anything but an obligatory, inconvenient formality on the way to reimposing a pre-determined sentence of guilty. They openly coach the only witness, who must hold some kind of record as the World's Least-Convincing Liar. The police pretend to remember absolutely nothing about the crime or the investigation or the arrest. The prosecutor objects to the any attempt by the defense to ask a question not asked at the first trial. The judge (there is no jury) makes some small effort to appear impartial, but since he's the same judge who found Zúñiga guilty the first time, he's essentially being asked to admit his own corruption by overturning his own ruling.

At the end of the trial, the prosecutor declines to make a closing statement. Zúñiga demands that she explain to him her basis for believing he's guilty. Since there's not a shred of evidence that he is, she decides to answer a different question. "Why do I accuse him?" she laughs.

"Because it's my job." The filmmakers wisely omit this woman's name, and we can only wonder how many other innocent lives she's laughingly ruined over the course of her cancerous career. (In fairness, if that's the right word, there's no reason to think she's unusually malignant by Mexican judicial standards [if that, too, is the right word].)

Having made no effort to conceal the ridiculousness of the trial, the judge upholds the wisdom of his own original ruling and re-sentences Zúñiga to 20 years. This would have been the appalling end of an appalling documentary, except for the other reason we proclaimed him the Luckiest Man in Mexico. Zúñiga has a right to appeal, which means a fourth chance to try to prove his innocence. During the prep for that trial, the attorneys discover that none of the new, exculpatory evidence from the latest trial made it into the official record (which is the basis on which the appeals court decides). The judge simply re-entered the record from the first trial, and that was that.

Fortunately... Zúñiga's trial - unique among all trials in Mexico - was recorded on videotape. The fact that no one even hesitated before doctoring the record of a trial they knew had been recorded by the defendant's sttorneys tells you everything you need to know about the system's imperviousness to change. Amazingly, it took great effort, but the lawyers finally convinced the appellate judges to watch the video rather than read the records. Even more amazingly, the three judges had to seriously debate before reaching their verdict and ordering Zúñiga released immediately - a verdict it's impossible to imagine would have come about if not for the fact that an impartial record of the trial happened to exist on tape. The filmmakers call their production company "Lawyers With Cameras," presumably because "The System's Worst Fucking Nightmare" felt too aggressive. Layda Negrete:

"The first time we entered the courtroom with our cameras, everyone started yelling in a panic. In a way, my favorite character in the film is the camera; its presence has incredible importance in a system that is corrupt and that is used to operating in the shadows. The camera illuminates so many things, and there’s a hope that the illumination it brings will also bring change.

"In Mexico, the actual litigation system makes no sense, and it makes no sense to be an attorney – you cannot advance justice under the rules and practices set in place. That’s why I always think that the camera is a weapon in the courtroom."

That's everything a documentary should be.

    Update: On Presumed Guilty's Facebook page, the producer points out that 145,000 people (so far) have watched the film for free on YouTube, rather than paying 50 pesos, thus depriving their charitable/reform efforts of over 7 million pesos. We genuinely believe that 145,000 additional viewers is a greater tool for reform in the long run than 7 million pesos, but point taken. You can toss them some cash here.

    Later Update: The link above came from the film's own website, but leads to a film festival in San Francisco. Richard from the MexFiles adds that "direct payments can be made in Mexico (where theater profits were supposed to go anyway) to Projecto RENACE, Bancomer Account # 0167203489 Clabe: 012580004473504731"


Mexfiles said...

More direct payments can be made in Mexico (where theater profits were supposed to go anyway) to Projecto RENACE, Bancomer Account # 0167203489
Clabe: 012580004473504731

Juanita said...

I watched this yesterday as well. Riveting and maddening and so true. A good friend did two years in Central Mexico for a crime he didn't commit (luckily, only 2 yrs). Sad to think of the young guys growing old in prison as their wives get felt up by dirty guards, policemen fill quotas, rotten detectives get promoted, and judges send 90% defendants to jail based on witness testimony so often procured by crooked cops.

Thanks for posting the documentary on your blog yesterday! Everyone should see this.

JustaCanuck said...

THANK YOU soooo much for not only posting the YouTube link, but for writing about the documentary. As a dual citizen of Canada and Mexico currently living in the northernmost point of NAFTA, I've heard a lot about this doc from my friends in Mexico, and had no idea on how to get a hold if it. I'm glad it's available on line. You're absolutely right. We're all very aware of all the crap, injustice and corruption unfolding every day in the country. But it's very different when all of the pieces come together and unfold at once right before our eyes in a matter of minutes and not during a period of days, years or "Sexenios."

Anonymous said...

More videos:

Anonymous said...

Immensely interesting. Link to a working upload of the movie: