- Associated Press - Friday, February 18, 2011

MEXICO CITY (AP) - Antonio Zuniga was minding his own business, walking through his Mexico City neighborhood, when police arrested him on charges of murdering a young gang member he had never seen. He was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence.

The story might have ended there if it hadn’t been for two determined lawyers armed with a video camera. They got the street vendor a retrial and, finally, acquittal by an appeals court thanks to the video they shot, which turned into a harrowing documentary that opens in Mexico on Friday in its first run in commercial theaters.

“Presumed Guilty,” which premiered two years ago at the Belfast Film Festival, has been shown in more than a dozen international festivals and on U.S. public television. It even won the best documentary category at Mexico’s own Morelia Film Festival in 2009.

But the film would have been almost forgotten in its home country if not for key members of Mexico’s entertainment elite, who promoted its commercial release at a moment when botched cases and legal abuses are causing public outrage.

“Indifference and ignorance are the major illnesses we’re experiencing,” said Diego Luna, the Mexican actor and director who has used his Hollywood star power to promote the documentary. “We’ve learned to live with injustice and move on as if nothing were wrong.”

“Presumed Guilty” offers a rare front-row look into Mexico’s secretive court system, which places the burden of proof on defendants. Trials conducted largely on paper offer no chance for public scrutiny. Critics say this results in a system in which innocent are jailed and criminals go free.

Lawyers Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete won a retrial for Zuniga when they found that his original defense attorney lacked a valid license to practice law, and they got the judge’s approval to film the proceedings.

The film shows that police had no physical evidence against Zuniga. Tests found no gunpowder residue on his hands.

And several witnesses saw Zuniga selling video games at his stand in a street market at the time of the 2005 slaying, miles (kilometers) away from the rough borough of Iztapalapa where the killing occurred. But their testimony was not allowed in court.

In one of the most powerful scenes, the key witness to the killing, the victim’s cousin, acknowledges he never saw Zuniga fire a shot. He insists Zuniga was present along three members of a rival gang who confronted him and his cousin. But while he describes each of the three gang members physically, he is unable to describe Zuniga.

In fact, the teenage witness failed to mention Zuniga’s presence at all in his initial testimony to police on the day of the killing.

But the judge, the same one who presided over the first trial, upheld the conviction.

“It was like being in a bizarre world where everything is upside down,” said Zuniga, a 31-year-old who repairs video game consoles for a living and dabbles in rap and break dancing.

The 90-minute documentary also shows glimpses of Zuniga’s life in prison, where he shared a tiny cell with 20 inmates and slept on a concrete floor under a cabinet with only a blanket.

Zuniga finally was acquitted by an appeals court in 2008 after his lawyers showed the panel of three judges the video of his retrial. He was released after nearly two years and four months in prison.

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