How can a system work when there are no incentives for it to do so? That is the basic dilemma confronting reformers of the Mexican justice system. For years, police, prosecutors and judges in Mexico have known that they don’t have to find and punish people who have actually committed crimes to create an illusion of law and order; just filling the jails will do.
The award-winning documentary Presumed Guilty, which airs on PBS on July 27, 2010, exposes the disturbing contradictions of the Mexican justice system. It follows two attorneys as they attempt to prove the innocence of a young man wrongfully accused of murder, taking the viewer behind the scenes into Mexico’s prisons and courtrooms, as well as into the lives of the defendant’s family and friends.
The judge and prosecutor rush to convict an innocent man, willfully ignoring the overwhelming evidence that should set him free. When the prosecutor is asked why she continues to pursue this case against the wrong man, she chuckles and responds: “because it’s my job.”
These attitudes must be challenged.
Presumed Guilty is an eye-opening film for all those calling for harsher sentences and fewer protections in a system that is all too willing to go through the motions of justice, while incarcerating innocent people and allowing criminals to go free.
Mexico’s continued struggle with crime has been wrongly blamed on “light” sentences and “too many rights” for the accused. Yet it is the lack of checks and balances, and the widespread reliance on scapegoats, that poisons Mexico’s justice system. In the absence of genuine investigations, criminals can safely assume that unless caught red-handed, they will not be prosecuted. Meanwhile, people who are innocent and vulnerable take the blame.
Presumed Guilty has been lauded at film festivals, and the producers are now seeking to convert the buzz into real reform of the Mexican justice system. The Open Society Justice Initiative Global Campaign for Pretrial Justice supports this film as part of the “Presumption of Innocence” project in Mexico, and I encourage you to watch it on PBS this month (check local listings).
To learn more about the flaws in pretrial justice in Mexico and potential solutions to these problems, you can go to the Presumption of Innocence project website, as well as the film’s website and Facebook page.
The Mexican people and victims of crime deserve better; this documentary and project are steps towards building a better, more accountable system.