Imagine being picked up off the street after a long day of work by a group of men you’ve never seen before and being told “You did it,” over and over again. You have no idea what they are talking about and the next thing you know, you’re being tried for murder. Your lawyer is practicing law under falsified documents and you are eventually convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
This is the story of Toño, a Mexican man who was falsely accused of murder. He contacted two lawyers who had been conducting statistical research on criminal justice in Mexico after learning of their short film, El Tunel, to see if they could help him with his case. Over a two-and-a-half year period, these lawyers captured Toño’s story on film and the result was “Presunto Culpable,” or “Presumed Guilty.”
When I saw this film, I had no idea what the judicial system in Mexico was like or what happened when defendants were accused of a crime. I had never seen a Mexican courtroom, much less a trial, and was curious to compare this system with the U.S. criminal justice system.
I was shocked by what I saw. Defendants’ files, compiled by the prosecution, were placed in stacks several feet high in warehouses. The “courtroom” looked like a standard office building, and the defendant was not sitting next to his lawyer but stood behind bars in a small cell behind the judge. Defense attorneys could not ask questions about anything that was already in “the file.” The judge would repeat everything that was said by the parties, even though the court reporter was within earshot of all who were present. As a result, the record only included the judge’s words.
This film demonstrated the terrible odds that many criminal defendants face in Mexico, primarily because they live in a system where they are guilty until presumed innocent. Toño shared a cell with twenty other men, many of whom were accused of crimes they did not commit and most of whom were young adults. While Toño had a team of attorneys to assist him with his case, the vast majority of these men will serve their sentences without any chance of appeal.
It is important for all law students to see this film to know about the injustice happening in Mexico. It will forever change the way you think about a courtroom, how parties can present evidence, and what the judge’s role is in the process. You can hold a film screening at your law school. For example, La Alianza at Vanderbilt Law School, the Latin American law student association at Vanderbilt, is holding a screening on Wednesday, March 30. Screenings last fall were held at Berkeley and Harvard.
To learn more about Presunto Culpable, visit the film’s website (in Spanish) at http://www.presuntoculpable.org/.
Finally, you should read last week’s New York Times feature story on the film to get a sense of what has been going on recently. You’ll never think about the judicial system the same way again.
Barbara Barreno is a third-year student at Vanderbilt University Law School and Chair of the National Latina/o Law Student Association.