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.
"Just when I thought all hope was lost, my family and friends found this lawyer Roberto, who is here with me," Zuñiga told the crowd through an interpreter. "He gave me a chance and listened to my story. That was the important part — to have someone listen to what you say."
Roberto Hernandez and his wife, Layda Negrete, were both lawyers who were also public-policy doctoral students at the University of California at Berkeley when they stumbled upon Zuñiga. Their intervention led to his exoneration through a video they filmed in the prison and in the courtroom. They subsequently turned the footage into a documentary titled "Presumed Guilty" (in English). The film is currently the highest grossing documentary ever shown in Mexico, much to the distain of the judicial system, which tried to ban the film soon after it opened in March 2011.
Highlighting the need for judicial reform, the film started receiving acclaim long ago at international film festivals, including the prestigious Toronto Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2009. In the United States, PBS aired the film in 2010, and the DVD is available for sale.
In Mexico, the temporary ban made viewings and purchases soar since its release only weeks ago. The film gained further credibility when the Mexican Senate and Congress passed resolutions supporting it. Specifically, the senate applauded the film for revealing "the disaster and disgrace of our justice system."
Film documentation of the criminal justice system has been effective. In 2008, the Mexican government actually started making judicial reforms, including constitutional amendments that Hernandez helped draft and which included a presumption of innocence clause. Those reforms are slated to go into effect in 2016.
"This film is changing the way Mexicans think about their government," announced Mark Godsey, Ohio Innocence Project director and UC law professor, at a special conference viewing of the movie. After the 90-minute showing of the film, Zuñiga and Hernandez took part in a question-and-answer session.
"I did not want to see the movie tonight," Zuñiga admitted to the audience. "It is always painful to me.
"But overall it has been a positive experience because I met wonderful people and had a great opportunity to expose things that happen frequently. I think it was worth it."
Hernandez and Negrete joined Zuñiga's cause because they were anxious to reform the Mexican judicial system. Since all criminal evidence is sealed to the public, the pair was determined to film the penal and justice system to document things that words could not express. Amazingly, they were granted permission.
First, they helped get a retrial for Zuñiga based upon the discovery that his original public defender had been practicing with a forged license. At the new trial, the prosecution's sole witness finally admitted that he did not see the accused shoot the victim. Because that testimony is part of the not-for-profit film, audiences are always stunned to watch the court once again declare Zuñiga guilty.
Next, the grad-student couple appealed the case by showing that the videotapes of the hearing differed substantially from what the justices had read in print. At the appellate level, Zuñiga was exonerated in 2008.
Hernandez and his wife hope to get a law passed allowing every criminal trial to be filmed. "Film is essential for everyone to see what is going on," Hernandez said. "What was unique in this case was not getting him out, but videotaping everything."
In May, Mexican advocates for reform will have an event "where officials will be invited to 'deconstruct' the movie and to make sense of its implications for the reforms Mexico needs," Hernandez told UC Magazine.
"I decided not remain silent," Zuñiga said. "The response has been surprising. They thank me for this. I wish more people would speak up."