Sunday, September 07, 2008

More on Mexico's legal reforms

Since radical changes to Mexico's legal system were announced earlier this year, I've been waiting mostly in vain for more detailed English language accounts of all the details. This AP account (Sept. 6) doesn't fully fill that gap, but gives a little more detail about the training going on and what reforms may look like upon implementation:
Under the constitutional amendment passed by the legislature, approved by all 32 states and signed by President Felipe Calderon, Mexico has eight years to replace its closed proceedings with public trials in which defendants are presumed innocent, legal authorities can be held more accountable and justice is equal. ...

Since the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, Mexico has had an inquisitorial system adopted from Europe in which the accused is not presumed to be innocent and proceedings are largely carried out in writing and in secret.

Inquisitorial systems are still used in many countries. But Mexico's version had become so corrupt, Gonzalez said, that "if police put someone's head in excrement and the person confessed, the confession was admitted if the paperwork followed procedures as far as fingerprints, the signature of the public minister, etc."

Without the threat of exposure in public trials, mistaken arrests, bungled investigations and confessions extracted under threats and torture have become common in Mexico. ...

Under the old rules, suspects are routinely paraded in front of cameras before they have been charged, sometimes holding weapons allegedly used in crimes. Lawyers often pay witnesses to write favorable testimony, Gonzalez said, and there are no cross-examinations of witnesses, emotional courtroom exchanges or clever closing arguments. ...

Judges often get their shoes shined while presiding over trials. Gonzalez said the judges sometimes send court secretaries to oversee the closed proceedings, where the few questions asked of defendants often don't relate to the charges, such as "Are you Catholic?"

"It's an amazing change that judges will be listening to someone's voice," Gonzalez told her class at Mexico's Federal Judicial Institute. "The judge will look into the eyes of those testifying. He will see if they stutter, if they are nervous. Does all that count? Of course!"

Judges — not juries of peers — will still determine guilt or innocence. "This is not a copy of the gringo system," Gonzalez told the class.

Instead, Mexico chose a criminal code similar to the one adopted in 2005 by Chile, where cases are examined by three judges who consider the legality of the evidence and whether the defendant's rights were respected. Then, the judges send cases to trial or recommend other means of adjudication, such as a plea bargain or probation.

The new penal code is no miracle cure, but supporters say it has more safeguards, such as limits on detention without charges, the right to a lawyer and a speedy trial.

Still, many are skeptical.

"This favors the guilty," said court clerk Maria del Carmen Rojas. "It gives them too many rights, and because of the speedy trials, judges are not going to have time. Judges are going to be under a lot of pressure."

Other officials suggested that many police, prosecutors and judges would simply ignore the changes.

Some worry a new provision allowing organized crime suspects to be held for up to 80 days without charges could lead to abuses. New York-based Human Rights Watch says that's one of the longest pre-charge detention times of any Western democracy. Terrorism suspects can legally be held for no more than two days on U.S. soil without being charged.

No one knows exactly when the first federal oral trial will take place.


Paul B. Kennedy said...

It's certainly an improvement over the existing system. We will have to wait and see if the protections in place to protect citizens against the might of the state are adequate to protect the rights of the accused. I guess we should also ask if one of the panelists is sleeping with the state's attorney.

Paul B. Kennedy
Attorney at Law

Robert Langham said...

Too little, too late. The US Drug war has enriched Mexican and South American criminals where they will be able to resist any reformations of the civil life of the drug-supplying countries.
Nice job Drug Warriors!

Anonymous said...

The idea that our system is better than Mexico's is mostly just an illusion. In our system the innocent are often convicted. Judges are biased. Most jurors walk into a courtroom assuming guilt, not innocence. Witnesses lie, sometimes at the coaxing of prosecutors, prosecutors withhold evidence, etc. The presumption of innocence in our system is a myth. I recall a recent study that said juries get it wrong 1 in 6 times usually erring by convicting the innocent. Juries are not a guarantee of fairness and justice. Often the jury is swayed by an illusion and it is this instead of the truth that often prevails in our courts. We like to think our system is superior but in reality it isn't much better.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it will help or not but unlike the above poster I think our system is a whole lot better. It's not perfect by any means, but given a choice in real life I would rather be tried under our system than under theirs.

I think the biggest issue is institutional. You don't change the way judges judge simply by telling them to do the job differently. Our own judges are a great example of that, and over affairs a lot less minor.

Anonymous said...

Yikes, a mean a lot more minor.

Anonymous said...

Well who's legal system is better than that of the United States is something I would like to know.

Are innocent people convicted? I know they are. Do we have system of appeals to deal with this, yes we do. If there is another country that does it better I would like to know where it is. Just tell me.

The Mexican legal system is so corrupt. I mean the "Policia Judicial" are actually are actually both judge and peace officer all wrapped up into one! They can arrest you and pronounce sentence.

The Mexican Military patrols the countryside and it is often wondered how many arrestees actually make it to jail or whether they were even charged with anything.

Mexico is MESSED UP from the top down. I really consider myself and my family lucky for the system here in the U.S. where people live in relative safety and security.

Anonymous said...

Our system is not corrupt?

Appeals? In Texas the COurt of Criminal Appeals can sit on an appeal indefinitely. The longest I know was 8 years and the guy was on death row and has since been exonerated. Our system is just as corrupt as Mexico's. We just don't want to believe it.

I was framed by a corrupt DA and his investigator and they tried to charge me with a felony until I hired an attorney they were afraid of. The judge was the former DA who by all accounts still believes he is the DA. He set a ridiculous (and unconsitutional) bond. I was told by multiple attornies there was no way I would get a fair trial in his court. I ended up pleading to a misdemeanor for something that I didn't do. If I had went to court I would probably be serving a 5 year prison sentence based on a corrupt DA's lie. I think I would have been better off in Mexico.

Anonymous said...

Read the book "Chasing Justice" and the book "Smith County Justice". Both true stories. Then tell me we have a great criminal justice system.

Anonymous said...

Our criminal justice system is not great. Don't believe everything you read.

95% of convictions are plea deals. How can anyone get due process when effective the only choice they have is to plead guilty.

As far as appeals, you will loose. Take a look at how many of the 5% that do not plead guilty, are found guilty and then appeal actually win. As I said, you will loose.

Once you are convicted, you automatically become a second class citizen and the land of opportunity shuts the doors to you. There is no redemption.

As far as Mexico's legal reforms, at least they're willing to agree that improvements are needed and begin the slow painful process of actually changing their system.

Anonymous said...

As a person facing daily this situation here in Mexico I can tell that some reforms are good but as long as the adhere to the law. Honestly we need to improve in our legal system if we want to promote this country as a good place to live.

Anonymous said...

Nothing can change the way that people do things in mexico. Only bringing a new group of guys to lead the nation, then would be a considerable change.