Presumed Guilty: The Injustices of Mexico’s Justice SystemOn September 28, 2019 by Ann Brown
Antonio “Toño” Zúñiga, a young man who worked as a street vendor in Mexico City, was abducted by police and accused of a murder he didn’t commit. He was held without charge, and there was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime. He had no link to the victim, and no motive. Witnesses could testify he was working at the market and provide an airtight alibi for the time of the murder.
Despite this, Toño was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Presumed Guilty, which airs tonight on PBS, is his story, as well as the story of Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete, two self-described “lawyers with cameras” who are determined to expose a deeply flawed Mexican legal system which has no presumption of innocence.
Hernandez and Negrete gained unprecedented access to the prison where Toño is held, as well as to the “courtrooms” where justice is meted out. It’s not surprising to learn that the prison and justice rooms are part of the same building complex. The film will be shocking to anyone who is unfamiliar with the way the criminal justice system works (or doesn’t work) in Mexico.
According to the film, the majority of the accused never see an arrest warrant. They are not brought before a judge, or a jury of peers. The conviction rate in Mexico City is 95 percent, with 92 percent of those verdicts lacking physical evidence.
Arrest-to-prison is a lightning-fast process, but ironically, this process generates reams and reams of paperwork. One of the film’s lasting images is of a room of wall-to-wall metal shelving, overflowing with bound books of “evidence.”
The filmmakers’ unrelenting research into Toño’s case earns them a retrial. And, in the film’s real coup, they are then allowed to film the proceedings. The retrial lasts from November 2007 to February 2008, and these scenes in the “courtroom,” which more or less resembles an American-style DMW, are riveting.
This is because Toño must mount his own defense, standing behind a small window blocked by iron bars. With coaching and support from Hernandez and Negrete, Toño faces the judge who originally sentenced him, Hector Palomares; he cross-examines the only “eyewitness,” a gang member; and tries to break down the arresting detectives, who stick to their wall of silence by answering every question with “I don’t remember.”
These scenes are also very effective for the actions of a savvy and charismatic defense lawyer, Rafael Heredia, who pokes, prods and challenges the judge, detectives and especially a by-the-numbers prosecutor who sits looking bored and amused throughout the whole ordeal.
The film is a tour-de-force for constitutional law junkies. And for those who like David vs. Goliath stories. It is a very human story as well. It exposes the weaknesses in large systems and questions the motives of those in authority. It challenges viewers to ask why. It will make you angry at the injustice that goes on today for so many people like Toño. It is honest, and moving.