Family: American Unfairly Jailed in Nicaragua

American Eric Volz has been sentenced to 30 years in a Nicaraguan prison. He was charged with killing his former girlfriend. But Volz's family and friends say the Nicaraguan court ignored evidence that should have cleared him.

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LYNN NEARY, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

In Nicaragua, a young American is behind bars, sentenced to a 30-year term for killing a former girlfriend. It's a crime he says he did not and could not have committed. The young man's family and friends, along with lawyers in Nicaragua and the United States, claim the small-town court that heard the case ignored evidence that would have cleared him instead of playing to rising local sentiment. NPR's Juan Forero reports from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

JUAN FORERO: San Juan del Sur looks ideal. Waves crash along a horseshoe bay, its crystalline waters reflecting fronds(ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: Throngs of Americans pack seaside restaurants. Retirees look to buy homes. Tourists come to relax and party. But on November 21st, shortly before noon, the authorities say at least two men entered the Sol Fashion Store owned by a beautiful 25-year-old woman name Doris Jimenez. She was hogtied and raped. Then paper and cloth were rammed down her throat until she suffocated. It shocked this normally placid town.

Juan Fernando Palacio, a barber, has lived in San Juan del Sur 54 years. His barber shop is right next to Sol Fashion.

JUAN FERNANDO PALACIO: (Through Translator) Naturally, it was a case we had never seen before, and people were surprised and bothered that something like this could happen in a peaceful place like San Juan del Sur.

FORERO: People's suspicions turned on a foreigner, Eric Volz, a 27-year-old American who had once dated Jimenez and remained close to her. Jimenez' mother, Mercedes Alvarado, would later tell the court that Volz was obsessed and jealous. The police initially went after two other men, but they were quickly freed. One of them, Nelson Lopez, fingered Volz. Volz' lawyers said he did so under pressure from police. Volz was then charged along with the second man, Julio Martin Chamorro.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSES TROTTING)

FORERO: The trial took place in February in Rivas, a town of colonial buildings and horse-drawn carts. In the weeks leading up to the trial, local media and Jimenez' mother whipped up local suspicion.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAUCOUS TOWNSPEOPLE)

FORERO: Townspeople demonstrated outside Rivas' courtroom. They were angry, convinced that Volz' affluence and influence and American passport would win him freedom. An angry mob even tried to lynch Volz in December; he narrowly escaped with his life. Then in February, there was a three-day trial that concluded with Volz declaring his innocence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIAL)

ERIC VOLZ: (Through Translator) I'm innocent. I want to say to the people, I am not killer. I'm innocent.

IVETTE TORU: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: But Judge Ivette Toruño found both Volz and Chamorro guilty, and Volz was sent to prison. Volz' mother, Maggie Anthony, got the news in her home in Tennessee. The moment is recorded in a YouTube video that Volz' supporters have put together about his plight. When she heard the news, she called Volz' father, Jan.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

JAN VOLZ: Hello.

MAGGIE ANTHONY: Hey, Jan. It's me.

VOLZ: Hey.

ANTHONY: Um, it's a guilty verdict.

VOLZ: Guilty verdict?

ANTHONY: Yes.

VOLZ: Okay.

ANTHONY: And, um...

FORERO: But Volz' lawyers, his family and friends criticize the judge. They say she failed to adequately consider evidence. They say that the trial turned against Volz based more on a townspeople's demand for swift justice rather than on the evidence. They've made their arguments through an intensive lobbying campaign, reaching out to American congressmen and reporters. It includes the YouTube video, which has been viewed nearly 100,000 times.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

VOLZ: It's just - it's insane, like it's truly, this crazy nightmare.

FORERO: When Jimenez was killed, Volz says he was two-and-a-half hours away in Managua, the capital. He was working in his house on the second issue of a glossy new magazine he founded. Police took statements from 10 people, including a respected Nicaraguan journalist, Volz' maid, a gardener, employees, and assorted visitors. They say Volz was there all morning and into the mid- afternoon. Volz' defense also presented phone records and the time stamps from an instant messaging conversation he was having with a consultant in Atlanta. The defense says those also put Volz squarely in Managua.

Ramon Rojas is Volz' lead attorney.

RAMON ROJAS: (Through Translator) In trial, we showed that on the day and time of the death, he was in Managua. It's indisputable. There's a lot of it, and it's strong.

FORERO: But Judge Toruño, presiding over an American-style trial, only permitted three of Volz' defense witnesses to testify. She said it would be too repetitive to include the others. She then said that the key witness presented by the defense was not credible. That was Ricardo Castillo, the respected 46- year-old Nicaraguan journalist. He said he was with Volz from noon until 2 p.m. that day. Instead, she relied on the testimony of Nelson Lopez, one of the first two suspects in the crime. In exchange for immunity, he testified against Volz.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIAL)

NELSON LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He admitted being a drunk, but he also claimed he saw Volz leaving Jimenez' store just after the slaying. The judge discarded Volz' phone records. She said they only showed calls were made from Volz' phone, not that he made the calls. She also said the instant messaging records did not show where Volz was located. The judge also said that it didn't matter that there was no physical evidence - no semen, hairs or blood - tying Volz to the murder scene. The court placed a lot of importance on the testimony of Jimenez' mother, Mercedes Alvarado.

(SOUNDBITE OF COCK CROWING)

FORERO: On a recent day, she sat in her semi-rural neighborhood. She sat in a rocking chair and recounted the growing fear she said her daughter felt.

MERCEDES ALVARADO: (Through Translator) She told me: What happens is Eric is very jealous and tries to control me, and I'm afraid, Mama, that Eric will kill me because he's so jealous.

FORERO: Volz says by phone from prison that he wasn't jealous, that he and Jimenez were friends when she was killed. He says the family wanted his head.

VOLZ: I mean, why were the families and - you know, the friends and the family members testifying that I was a jealous guy? I mean, it was convenient for them if they wanted me to be convicted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: La Modelo is Nicaragua's big maximum-security prison, sweltering hot, overcrowded and dangerous. Outside its gates, makeshift three-wheel cabs offer rides to visitors. Roadside stay-ins offer meals. Those waiting to get in to visit relatives listen to music.

I arrived one blazing afternoon with a court order to see Volz, but the order was rejected.

Unidentified Guard: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: A guard asked me to leave. Later, I spoke to Volz by phone, and I asked him who would have killed Jimenez.

VOLZ: I wish I knew. Officially, the case is closed. So I don't know, you know, what happened that day. I don't know why anyone would want to do that.

FORERO: Volz has appealed his conviction. It's now up to a three-judge appeals tribunal in the city of Granada, far from here. It could rule any day now. Juan Forero, NPR News, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

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