- 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.

Hernandez and Negrete, husband-and-wife doctoral students at the University of California, Berkeley, have campaigned for judicial reform in Mexico for years. They conducted a survey of Mexico City prisoners in 2008 and found that 95 percent of those charged were convicted. They also found that 92 percent of the cases lacked physical evidence and were based on witnesses testimony.

Yet even efforts to repair the system have met with frustration.

Mexicans have been horrified by the case of Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, who was gunned down in a Ciudad Juarez street in December while protesting the acquittal of a man accused of killing her daughter. Her daughter’s alleged killer is the suspect in Escobedo’s murder as well.

The judges acquitted the daughter’s killer in a public hearing, the result of a 2008 legal reform meant to open the system. The judges said the new rules forced them to throw out evidence that might have been accepted under the old, closed system.

Hernandez and Negrete had trouble finding a Mexican distributor for their film, even with the buzz it created at film festivals and in the U.S., where it aired on public television’s “P.O.V.” documentary series last year.

So they turned to Alejandro Ramirez, CEO of Mexico’s largest movie theater chain, Cinepolis, who had seen the documentary in Morelia. Even though his company doesn’t usually distribute films, he decided to do it for the “Presumed Guilty,” which will open in 130 theaters in six major cities.

Hernandez and Negrete say they want videotaping to be mandatory in all interrogations and trial proceedings in Mexico.

“The film will help people open their eyes and realize that their freedom is as fragile as someone pointing a finger at them on the street,” Hernandez said.

___

Associated Press writer Carlos Rodriguez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

“I would love for people to see it and do something to change this system,” Zuniga said, “because being afraid of those who are supposed to make you feel safe is truly horrifying.”