Young man's story from Mexico leads to award-winning documentary, judicial reform
by Deborah Rieselman
In a Mexican prison cell, Antonio Zuñiga hated sliding underneath a cabinet to sleep on the concrete floor every night. A rock-rigid bed was bad enough, but the bone-chilling coldness of the floor, having roaches crawl over his face and sharing the small cell with 20 inmates made it worse. Yet the utterly unbearable aspect was knowing that lies had put him there, serving a 20-year sentence for murdering a man he had never even seen.
Zuñiga and his current lawyer told their story of justice gone awry, as did guests from more than 20 different countries, at the first international conference of the Innocence Project network, hosted by the University of Cincinnati's College of Law, home of the Ohio Innocence Project. Lawyers, professors, students, human-rights activists and more than 100 wrongfully convicted people who had been exonerated from prison attended the Freedom Center event on April 7-10, 2011, which ended up being the largest gathering of "exonerees" ever.
Although stories from countries such as China, Nigeria and the U.S. differed from each other, they all shared the common element of misinformation taking the place of truth. In the Mexican case, the prosecution had only one witness, who did not accuse Zuñiga until his third statement. Furthermore, gunpowder-residue tests showed Zuñiga had not fired a gun, and several witnesses verified that the 26-year-old man was at work in Mexico City, far from the scene of the crime, at the time of the 2005 shooting.
Still the judge found him guilty. Conference participants learned that Mexico has no jury trials, police are rewarded for their number of arrests, and suspects are guilty until proven innocent.