Mexico shock verdict puts legal reform on trial

MEXICO CITY—The trial in the murder of a 16-year-old girl found burned in a trash pile was supposed to showcase U.S.-backed reforms to Mexico’s secretive justice system: Three judges, in the presence of the victim’s family, the defendant and their lawyers would announce their verdict in open court.

Instead, it became a rallying cry against impunity in a country where the vast majority of crimes still are not prosecuted. The victim’s mother wailed “No!” as the panel absolved defendant Sergio Barraza of murdering his live-in girlfriend, even though he had told at least half a dozen people that he killed her and described where he dumped her body.

Marisela Escobedo continued to protest her daughter’s murder, holding vigils demanding that Barraza be brought to justice until, on Dec. 16, she too was murdered. Barraza is the main suspect.

Now, what has become known as the Rubi case has put Mexico’s judicial reform on trial and has the entire country talking.

The judges, who were suspended and face impeachment, said they followed the law, which has strict standards for evidence. Mexico’s old system, still in place in many parts of the country, fostered corruption and confessions extracted by torture. The now widely condemned judges say the new system failed only because underfunded and ill-trained investigators and police failed to build a case. They had to throw out what they called large amounts of circumstantial or illegally obtained evidence.

“Our verdict did not kill anybody, not Rubi nor Mrs. Escobedo,” said Judge Catalina Ochoa.

Anti-crime activists say the judges were inept and hamstrung by the reform—touted by President Felipe Calderon and supported by the $19 million from the U.S.—because it overly favors the rights of suspects.

“The system went from one extreme to the other,” anti-crime celebrity Isabel Miranda Wallace, whose successful decade-long fight to bring her son’s kidnappers to justice served as a model for Escobedo’s tragic effort. “What once involved implicating innocent people, now means absolving those who are guilty.”

Miranda Wallace has been urging Mexican state governors to delay the reform, which by law must be in place nationwide by 2016. Even Calderon criticized “judges who, rather than act as judges, are clerks with checklists … It hurts a lot when the public and the government’s effort against crime are weakened at the last stage.”

Ironically, the openness that was meant to bury forever Mexico’s dark judicial past is helping fuel the criticism. Under the old system, court records were secret and proceedings conducted on paper. Judges rarely saw defendants, accepted confessions and ordered convictions.

But in 2008, Chihuahua became the first state to implement the judicial reform, imbedded in Mexico’s constitution, that more closely resembles the U.S. court system, though there are no juries. Lawyers question and cross-examine witnesses in open court, and defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

Trials are now videotaped. Judges are now subject to public scrutiny—too much, say the three who will now be tried by the state congress, something they call a violation of the judicial branch’s independence.

Judges can no longer consider confessions made without a judge, detective and the suspect’s defense lawyer present. In the Rubi case, though Barraza bragged to acquaintances and police that he killed the girl, he talked without a lawyer.

He walked freely out of the courtroom in April and disappeared before an appeals court overturned the original verdict a month later.

The appeals court ruled that a defendant’s statements to other people, when not in custody, do not have to be made in the presence of his lawyer. It also said the judges should have considered as evidence that Barraza told others he burned Rubi’s body “near a pigsty, on a dirt road near a graveyard and a power plant” in Ciudad Juarez, where her remains were found.

While Miranda Wallace supports the idea of open trials, she fears that publicly airing evidence in a case where the defendant walks free could encourage vigilanteism.

“This is going to create violence and impunity, and encourage people to take justice into their own hands,” she said. “People can say, ‘Everybody saw how I went to ask for justice, and they didn’t give it to me’.”

The judges who acquitted Barraza say they already see vigilanteism: They say they have become the victims of a political witch-hunt.

Their impeachment trial threatens to hide the real problem, a lack of funding, training and support for police to do sound investigations, said Maclovio Murillo, their attorney.

If the judicial reform is put on trial, he said, it could threaten a return to the past.

“You have to look at the positive aspects of the (new) system, which provides protection against fabricating evidence against people,” Murillo said. “You all remember when the police took suspects’ statements, and everybody confessed. Those statements were obtained without a lawyer present, in dungeons.”

The U.S., which has helped pay to train judges, prosecutors and police under the new system, plans to devote more of its $1.4 billion Merida Initiative intended to fight Mexico’s drug war to legal reform.

“What we don’t understand is why the Americans are paying for a system that is contrary to their own interests,” said Samuel Gonzalez, Mexico’s former top anti-drug prosecutor, who said he supported the open trial system, but not its pro-defendant tilt. The U.S. embassy had no immediate comment on complaints about the new system.

But Mexico’s neighbor to the north may find itself involved in another way. The three judges say if their persecution persists in Mexico, they may seek political asylum in the U.S.

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