Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Mexico is in the midst of a huge project to reform its criminal justice system. A key piece of the reform is the adoption of a new kind of trial process where lawyers argue their cases publicly in the courtroom. This means lots and lots of training.
The scene doesn’t look like a typical law school classroom. The students are already practicing lawyers and law professors — some of them with decades of experience. They’re gathered at a hotel in Tijuana to learn a completely new way of lawyering.
“So an examination might go something like this," says Allen Snyder, a professor at the University of San Diego law school. "Where were you on the night? Why were you there?”
The trainings began two years ago, after Mexico’s federal legislature passed sweeping reforms to the justice system. Juan García de Acevedo, a professor of criminal law at Universidad Panamericana in Mexico City, explains how the old system works.
“Usually the prosecutor investigated with the help of policemen and the evidence they gather, for example, statements from witnesses were written down and those written statements were produced in trial," he says.
The judge made his decision primarily based on those written statements. There was almost no examination and cross-examination of witnesses before a judge, like in a U.S. trial.
Snyder explains another curious aspect of the old system.
“Everybody had open access to the judges, without anyone else being there," he says. "I can’t imagine a system that would create more suspicion about the behavior of the judges.”
The Emmy award-winning, 2008 documentary “Presumed Guilty” brought international attention to the potential flaws in Mexico’s justice system.
The film tells the story of a young man wrongly accused of murder in Mexico City. He’s eventually found innocent, thanks largely to a husband and wife team of lawyers who expose the lack of transparency and arbitrariness in the young man’s detention and trial.
But justice in Mexico is slowly starting to look different. By law, the 2008 reforms must be implemented by each of the country’s 31 states by 2016. Some doubt this deadline can be met. It’s a huge task. For one thing, the courts have to be completely redesigned.
And then there’s the training. In Baja California, the state justice system is training many of its own employees. But what about lawyers in private practice? USD and the public university in Mexicali can only train a small fraction of them.
"We have to work a bit more with private lawyers, who are the ones with the least access to training, because training costs money," says Roberto Villa Gonzalez, sub-director of UABC Mexicali law school.
In Baja California, only Mexicali is currently using the new criminal trial system. The municipalities of Tijuana, Ensenada and Tecate are scheduled to implement it in the coming years.
In the meantime, law schools are just starting to incorporate the changes into their curriculum. In the Tijuana hotel, law students from all over the state are preparing for a mock trial competition with their Mexican and American peers.
There’s been plenty of resistance to this new way of running criminal trials among Mexican law professionals.
"The old judges and magistrates are the ones who are opposed the most to the reforms," says García de Acevedo. "They knew how to do things and they thought they were doing them right. The system worked. Well, there’s no perfect system, but it worked."
Still, many lawyers and professors are positive about the new changes.
"As people begin to learn and understand the scope of the new system, they start to get the feeling this system creates more transparency, and benefits us all in the long run," Villa Gonzalez says.
The new criminal trial system will only be used for state crimes in Mexico. Federal crimes will continue to be tried under the old system.