Thursday, March 22, 2012

Blind Mexican justice - but for everyone?

MGRR Opinion - Many without resources remain caught in lethargic Mexican legal system, despite constitutional reforms

*Links added below Jan. 23, 2013*
Mexico City -
The lawyers have left the courthouse and the French journalists are no doubt checking out of their hotel rooms today, headed for Benito Juárez International Airport. Florence Cassez had her breakfast this morning at the same place she did yesterday and many other days before that - in a Mexican jail cell. The justice ministers of this country's Supreme Court are watching endless video reruns of themselves, delivering their opinions during yesterday's marathon session which still hasn't resolved the fate of a convicted kidnapper sentenced to 60 years in prison. Life moves on for all of the participants.

There will be as many reactions to the Cassez case on the other side of the Atlantic as there have been here, and most of them will be equally uninformed and without basis other than emotion. The French say she is innocent and had the bad luck to fall in with an unsavory boyfriend. The Mexicans, 65% we're told, believe Cassez is guilty and got a fair trial. The case, an odyssey for the defendant and a chronic headache for the Calderón government and two sovereign states whose relationship has been bruised in the process, is not over.

It's not my purpose to debate yesterday's split decision by the Mexican Supreme Court. Each one of the five separate opinions was well crafted and powerfully stated. But they provided a road map to nowhere. The ministers plainly were as divided as everyone else.

My thoughts today are much more about those who do not have the capital that Florence Cassez so obviously does. I've read almost nothing about her personal circumstances, but I suspect she's well heeled. Legal fees are nothing to sneeze at, even in Mexico, and she has multiple attorneys on both continents. I doubt they're working on her case pro bono. I've seen Florence's parents on television on several occasions, and of course French president Nicolas Sarkozy has publicly commented on the Cassez matter numerous times. Not long ago he referred to a telephone chat the two had enjoyed. A friend of mine here in Mérida, a Mexican woman who is also a citizen of France and lives abroad part time, told me that she has "inside information" about the special treatment Cassez receives in jail. It includes espresso and fresh baked croissants at breakfast, according to her account, and wine with every dinner. There's probably a bit of hyperbole in that, but the point of the matter is that this defendant has not been dealt with the way most convicted prisoners are.

Mexico is undergoing major legal reforms, required by changes to its constitution in 2008. An antiquated form of criminal investigation is being abandoned in favor of a modern trial system which will resemble that used in the U.S., Canada and other nations with Anglo-American legal traditions. But thousands arrested under the old system languish in pretrial preventive detention. No evidence has been presented against them in a formal hearing. A Mexican university researcher said in November 2011 that 227,000 persons were being held in such indefinite legal limbo. He estimated that as many as 97,000 prisoners will be exonerated and eventually released. In the meantime, their detention costs Mexico two billion pesos annually, said the professor - $150 million USD.

Mexico does not allow bail in many criminal matters. Often defendants must wait in jail for years before their cases are determined, even though the law sets a 24 month deadline for formal adjudication and sentencing. The professor argued that Mexico is violating international speedy trial standards. He also claimed there has been resistance among judicial authorities to the new "oral trial" system required by the constitutional reforms.

Justice is supposed to be blind. "The law is no respecter of persons," goes the saying, meaning that in theory it shows no preference to anyone, regardless of name, status or position. But it comes at a high price which many in this country, unlike Florence Cassez, cannot afford to pay.

Any nation's system of justice is no better than that accorded to the least important person within its midst. Measured by that standard, Mexico has a lot of work yet - while it's chilling the Chardonnay for that very special guest from France.

Jan. 23, 2013 - Mexican Supreme Court orders Florence Cassez freed
Jan. 23, 2013 - Opinion: No justice for Mexicans in Florence Cassez ruling

Supreme Court upholds Florence Cassez conviction, 60 year sentence - for now:
¿Qué sigue en el caso de Florence Cassez ante la Suprema Corte?:
OPINIÓN: ¿Negar la libertad a Florence Cassez hizo justicia?:
Presumed Guilty:
Mexico gets major legal facelift:
Legal changes on their way to Yucatán:

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