MEXICO CITY — In a case that drew wide attention to the flaws in this country's criminal justice system, a judge Friday acquitted an American woman and her Mexican husband of murdering a Mexican teenager after they said they had been forced under police torture to confess.
Cynthia Kiecker, 45, and Ulises Perzabal, 46, left prison in the city of Chihuahua after the verdict and were driven by U.S. consular officials to the border, en route to her native Minnesota.
The couple had been imprisoned since May 2003 for the slaying of 16-year-old Viviana Rayas.
Rayas is one of more than 300 women who have been killed in the cities of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua over the last 11 years.
Mexico faces international condemnation not only for failing to solve those crimes but also for blaming some of them on innocents in the two northern cities.
Human rights groups in the United States and Mexico held up Kiecker and Perzabal as examples of such scapegoats.
With their long hair, tattoos and bohemian lifestyle, the couple attracted attention and suspicion in Chihuahua, a conservative cattle ranching center where they made jewelry and read tarot cards. Kiecker has lived in Mexico for 25 years.
Rayas' father, an influential union leader, had threatened to mobilize massive protests if police did not find his daughter, who disappeared after being dropped off by her parents at a park.
Police produced a girl's body two days later and arrested Kiecker and Perzabal.
Prosecutors said Rayas was killed with a jeweler's tool while she and other guests were taking part in a peyote tea-sipping ritual at the couple's home.
The authorities said Kiecker and her husband, in separate interrogations, fingered each other as the assailant.
The defendants claimed that they were tortured. Kiecker said police wet her shirt and shocked her with electrical prods.
The prosecution denied the claim, saying that the defense, in an effort to exonerate the couple, was exploiting Mexico's past reputation for torture.
But the prosecutor's case weakened when three witnesses also claimed that they had been tortured and retracted their testimony against the couple.
And the girl's father questioned whether the discovered body was really Rayas.
President Vicente Fox's special commission on the slayings finally weighed in with a report to Judge Flavio Bensasson citing numerous "irregularities" in the investigation.
The judge, who heard closing arguments last week, acted with unusual speed to reach a verdict before Christmas.
"Blaming innocent people only foments impunity, and that only benefits the guilty ones," the Interior Ministry said in a statement announcing the verdict.
In a telephone interview from Bloomington, Minn., Kiecker's mother, Carol, said, "We have to compliment the judge that he realized and understood that all of the allegations had been disproved and that they were clearly innocent."
Laurie Freeman, Mexico representative for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, noted that Rayas' killer was still at large. "But the acquittal means that the authorities can no longer pretend that they've solved the crime," she said. Two men have been convicted in the women's slayings in Ciudad Juarez.
Fox's government has intervened in several cases there, seeking federal grounds to investigate what are nominally cases under state jurisdiction.
Fox this year named a federal prosecutor who has charged 81 local officials with mishandling investigations in Ciudad Juarez.
Police there have been accused of torturing suspects, falsifying evidence and harassing victims' relatives.