Monday, March 14, 2011

Presunto Culpable (2008)

In Mexico you are guilty unless proven innocent.

This I already knew from my late night viewings of Preso en el Extranjero on Discovery. Although I know I may yet live to regret it, I am, as a result, inclined to imagine it would still be preferable to be involved in a tussle with the Guatemalan legal system, than that of our northern neighbour.

Let's look at some of the key stats that came up in this intriguing documentary. 95% of Mexican trials result in conviction. In fact, the trial is often little more than a rubber-stamping of the 'file' produced by investigating officers. If they don't choose to interview witnesses relevant to the defence, their statements don't go in the file.

92% of convictions involve no physical evidence whatsoever. In other words witness testimony is paramount. And 90% of defendants never see either a judge or an arrest warrant during the process.

78% of convicts are fed and supported by their own families, so the state doesn't really have to face up to much of a financial penalty for jailing innocents.

Two young and clearly affluent young Mexican lawyers made this film over the course of three years to expose what they see as the fundamental weakness in their nation's criminal justice system. The general story is told by focusing on a particular case, that of José Antonio Zuñiga, convicted of a gang homicide in 2005. Spotting that his defence lawyer in the original trial had been using a fraudulent photocopied license, they secure a retrial, but unfortunately the original judge is back for the sequel, and the circumstances are hardly what anyone brought up in the English system would recognise as court of law anyway.

Zuñiga was picked up by the cops near his PC-repair stall and although several people are willing to testify that they saw him working there all day, one witness, the victim's cousin Victor Reyes Bravo claimed to have seen him doing the deed around 3pm. Or at least he did on the third attempt, having produced two earlier statements featuring another gang leader as the pistolero.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the re-trial process is the almost face to face exchange of accusation and counter-accusation made by Reyes Bravo and Zuñiga (from behind bars), the words enunciated slowly and then repeated by the judge. V likened it to some strange school drama.

With contraband versions of this documentary outselling major Hollywood productions at stalls much like Zuñiga's own, and Mexicans flocking to their local Cinépolis to watch the formal discomfiting of Reyes Bravo, the witness himself has attempted to have the film banned across this hemisphere, because his privacy rights were violated when the re-trial was recorded. As of yesterday the ban was at least temporarily overturned on the grounds of freedom of information, and it would seem that the big local multiplexes had never got round to removing Presunto Culpable anyway, such was its screen-packing popularity.

It struck us that the real villains of the piece, at least as far as concocting the file on the original case, losing identikit sketches etc. was concerned, were the investigating officers, and the three we see in 'court' are straight from central casting. At one point the chief detective suddenly turns to camera and makes a not-so-veiled threat, along the lines that if anything should happen to him as a result of this little documentary, se chingaron cabrones. The judge, frankly also a bit dodgy of aspect, smiles nervously and points out that the remark is hardly relevant to the cross-examination.

Nevertheless, the film's one truly jaw-dropping moment occurs when the defence has completed its brief summing up and the judge asks the prosecuting attorney to close her case, at which point she states offhandedly that she's got it all on a diskette and she'd rather not say anything actually out loud. Zuñiga is permitted to challenge her on this and asks her what grounds she has for believing him to be guilty. She chuckles nervously and replies "Porque es mi chamba". (Because it's my job.)

After the retrial had concluded the judge and the prosecuting attorney wrote up the report minus almost everything that the defence attorney and the witness said in cross-examination, and so the fact that Roberto Hernández and his wife and producer, Layda Negrete were around to document proceedings on camera does seem to have been crucial to the eventual outcome.

It's been a year of are they/aren't they documentaries and there were times here too where we wondered whether it was only the cops who had been up to a bit of manufacturing. Hernández and Negrete appear to have extraordinary access to the accused (both inside and outside his cell during the re-trial for example) and their presentation of the defence case is also not without its flaws. For example, they tell us how long it would have taken Zuñiga to walk to the crime scene as if it's a given that he could not have used motorised transportation and although they do tell us that the victim was not known to the prisoner, they appear to dodge the question of his relationship with the other two individuals tied to the murder.

You can follow the campaign behind this excellent film here. Apparently there is a deadline of 2016 for a change in the Mexican constitution allowing for the presumption of innocence, but the government has also recently acquired the power to detain people without prosecution for up to eighty days.

Grade: A-

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