“Presumed Guilty” is the new film directed by Geoffrey Smith, the auteur of last year’s brilliant documentary, “The English Surgeon”, that aims to reveal just how unjust the justice system of Mexico is.
In “Presumed Guilty,” Smith is sharing the director credit with Roberto Hernández, the Mexican lawyer who shot the majority of the footage.
The film, which premiered two years ago at the Belfast Film Festival, and has been featured in more than a dozen international festivals as well as U.S. public television. It won the best documentary category at Mexico’s own Morelia Film Festival in 2009.
Geoffrey Smith’s role in the film was to spin a feature length documentary film from the more than forty hours of courtroom footage given to him by the legal team of Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete.
Hernández and Negrete felt compelled to document the court case they were fighting in Mexico; the case of Antonio Zuñiga, a videogame salesman who was walking through his Mexico City neighborhood the wrong day at the wrong time.
Out of the blue, and with zero proof, evidence or decency, Mexican policemen arrested him on charges of murdering a young gang member he had never seen.
Zuñiga was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison, even tough evidence of his innocence was absolutely overwhelming.
The lawyers, armed with a video camera got the street videogame vendor a retrial when they found out that his original defense attorney did not have a license to practice law; eventually he was granted an aquittal by a sympathetic appeals court sensitive to the video they provided as proof, and which turned into the documentary that opens in Mexico on Friday in its first theater run.
The multi-camera setup of the lawyers, combined with Geoffrey’s skill at storytelling, creates a tense courtroom drama reminiscent of “Law and Order.”
As the film goes on, the characters within the courthouse and the farcical nature of Mexico’s justice system are so picturesque, absurd and extreme, that at times it gives the film a precarious feel of a dark comedy.
The film shows that police had no physical evidence against Zuniga. Tests found no gunpowder residue on his hands, and several witnesses say they saw Zuñiga selling videogames at the same time several miles away, the killing he’s accused of perpetrating happened. Their testimony was not allowed in court.
“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.”
Hernandez and Negrete are husband-and-wife doctoral students at the University of California, Berkeley. The pair has 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 witness’ testimony.