Imprisoned In Mexico And 'Presumed Guilty'

Antonio Zuniga i i

Antonio "Tono" Zuniga, in a Mexican prison after being wrongfully accused of murder. Abogados Con Camara hide caption

itoggle caption Abogados Con Camara
Antonio Zuniga

Antonio "Tono" Zuniga, in a Mexican prison after being wrongfully accused of murder.

Abogados Con Camara

In December 2005, Antonio "Tono" Zuniga was picked up by police in Mexico, charged with murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

But Zuniga knew nothing about the crime, and had eyewitnesses who placed him elsewhere at the time of the murder.

Presumed Guilty, a film about Zuniga's plight, exposes a criminal justice system that often assumes guilt rather than innocence. Director Geoffrey Smith and Roberto Hernandez, one of the lawyers who worked to free Zuniga, talk about the film.

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TONY COX, host:

Tono Zuniga is a young Mexican man. He had a market stand in Mexico City, where he sold videogames and refurbished computers - until Mexican police picked him up and charged him with murder. Zuniga and his attorneys say he knew nothing about the murder. Witnesses put him nowhere near the scene of the crime, but a court sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

His story is the subject of a POV documentary that begins airing tonight on PBS stations across the country. It's titled "Presumed Guilty," and it follows Zuniga's efforts to get a fair trial and to get out of jail. The film was made by lawyer Roberto Hernandez and filmmaker Geoffrey Smith. Roberto Hernandez joins us now on the phone from Mexico, and Geoffrey Smith is at the BBC in London.

Gentlemen, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. GEOFFREY SMITH (Filmmaker): Hello, Tony.

COX: Roberto, I'll begin with you. I know that you are a lawyer, but how did you learn about Tono's case?

Mr. ROBERTO HERNANDEZ (Attorney): Well, he and his friends essentially found us on the newspapers. We had done a short documentary before we made a story about him, and we had a little moment of fame in Mexican -we were called by several inmates at the time, and he told us a very convincing story. And we decided to join in and to help him.

COX: Geoffrey, filmmakers are always looking for good stories. Was that what made you want to tell this one?

Mr. SMITH: Indeed, but it was largely down to the brilliant access that Roberto and Layda had negotiated. And that is a whole sort of discussion in itself, but they had the most amazing access - partly, I think, because they were known to the authorities as researchers and lawyers. So they got in, and they got the cameras in. And the footage they managed to generate was simply fantastic.

COX: It was a very compelling documentary to see. It's all in Spanish with English subtitles, but the story is certainly not lost as you watch what Tono goes through. It seems to me from what I saw, Roberto, that the turning point may have come - for him, at least - when you - when the two of you were able to get your cameras, literally, into the prison as well as into the whole court proceeding. How did you accomplish that?

Mr. HERNANDEZ: Well, in part the story of how the cameras - that we gained access to the cameras into the prison was - it's really told in the film itself because, you know, first, the most important thing was getting access to Tono and gaining Tono's trust. He really had been, you know, swindled by an attorney who wasn't really an attorney. And we found out, nearly by accident, that this man had forged his license to practice law. And these meant that we could request a retrial for him. And that's what we did, and we succeeded in getting that retrial. And then we requested the authorities to be able to film the new trial.

So it's not as if I went and I found a subject and decided to film him. It's just a process that took, in total, two years and a half to be able to get the footage that we got and to expose this story. And I think, you know, a lot of it is chance, a lot of it was persistence, and a lot of it is Tono's courage in allowing us to film his story.

COX: Geoffrey, were there areas that you were not allowed to film? And for the benefit of our listeners, would you describe the conditions that he was living in, in the prison, and the things that you were able to see and to film.

Mr. SMITH: I think the salient point, really, with this film is Tono's journey of discovery, not least because he admits at the beginning that he was like anybody else in Mexico, who was quite happy to see so-called criminals locked up for a very long period of time. But then when it happens to him, he understands that all is not what it seems with the authorities. And this is the journey. I mean, he undergoes, of course, you know, physical deprivation, where he's in a cell with 20 others that's probably only built for four people or so. But the film concentrates on this journey of discovery, which is why, I think, it echoes with people - because this is, in essence, something that could happen to all of us.

It happens much less frequently in Britain and the U.S., and in Canada. But tragically, it does happen. And that's the point of the film, to put all of us into his shoes, to go with him on a very personal or very moral and a very political, in a sense, voyage of discovery.

COX: Would you say, Roberto - because we said in the intro that here in America, we are presumed innocent until guilty - is it in - written in law in Mexico, or at least in this particular case, that you are presumed guilty, and you have to prove yourself innocent? Is that how it actually works for everyone there?

Mr. HERNANDEZ: It's a very interesting question. And I think it's, in a way, a simplification to say that in the U.S., one is presumed innocent until proven guilty - because it's not true. And a very important aspect of the system in the U.S., suspects are presumed guilty in the interrogation rooms. And there's a huge problem right now with police interrogations in North America. And it's not known very well, but the confession rate in the interrogations room in the U.S. is about 50 percent. And not all of the suspects who confessed did it, and it's been shown with DNA research.

And in the case of Mexico, well, the law, in fact, now stipulates that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty since an amendment to Mexico's constitution took place in 2008. That's now written in black and white. But the problem is not what the law says. The problem is that, you know, there are so many things that militate against this ideal of presumption of innocence. Tono has to face his trial from behind bars, so he doesn't look half - you know, he should not have - he doesn't have a neutral appearance in front of a courtroom. He is seen negatively, and he is not treated as if he was a human being. And like that, there's many other aspects of the court proceedings in Mexico that just make it impossible to have a fair trial.

COX: One of the most compelling things in the documentary, to my mind, was this - and I'd like to get you, as the filmmaker, Geoffrey, to talk - I know both of you were filmmakers, but Geoffrey, to you, to talk about this was, there - in the United States, you are supposed to be allowed to confront your accuser. In the circumstance in Mexico involving Tono, it was done in a very different sort of way, where literally, he was face to face - although there were bars between them -with him and his accusers. It was a very dynamic and tension-filled moment in the documentary. Talk about that scene, how important that was.

Mr. SMITH: In the Mexican courtroom, there's what's called the face-off, and that is between the defendant and the - those brought in and those who are witnesses against him. But the - that rests on the - on the one of the major problems, which is that the defense counsel can't question, can't cross-examine as you would normally expect in a court of law. The defense counsel can't do that because the system says that the answers are already in the paper document.

So faced with that enormous problem - because it takes away from the normal means of cross-examination - Roberto and Layda and the defense counsel had to train Tono to become his own lawyer. So he had an opportunity, it's only his opportunity as the defendant, to examine his accusers. But of course, in order to get them to admit that he didn't fire this weapon, he has to go through a training, and he has to learn all about this. It's another very special thing in the film, to see a young man do that. So that's what makes it incredibly dramatic because not only is it physically, you know, two or three feet between accuser and accused, but you're so hoping that he's going to make it. You're so hoping that he can ask the right questions and get the right answers.

COX: We only have a couple of moments - a couple of minutes left in our conversation. And I'd like to talk about Tono in that time and whether -what his reaction has been to the making of the film. We know what his reaction was on the day that he was released. There were tears and hugs all around. But in the time since then - really briefly, Roberto, what has been - how has he been?

Mr. HERNANDEZ: I think he is recovering. And I think he's - you know, it's been a huge and very radical process of transformation that I've seen through these years, in him. He went from being a victim of the most unfair injustice and feeling he was powerless before that, and into being somebody who can - who could challenge the system and who could be part of a team that was going to expose this.

And he so became involved in the process of the film and of making the film that it's just so - it's even difficult for me to talk about this because I - he changed radically, and he has gone back to prison several times to visit the people he left behind. And he wants to do something about it. And I hope I can help him, you know, continue to promote change in Mexico. And I think that, you know, showing the film in Mexico is the first part of this.

We haven't had the fortune of finding a way to show the film in Mexico in theatrical screens and in television, and that's what we're working towards.

COX: Our time is up. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I want to thank you again. Filmmaker Geoffrey Smith joined us from the BBC in London. Roberto Hernandez was on the phone from Mexico. The film is titled "Presumed Guilty." It begins airing tonight on PBS stations around the country.

You can also watch it online. There is a link at our website at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Again, gentlemen, thank you.

Mr. HERNANDEZ: Thank you.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you.

COX: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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