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French woman's release stirs up anger in Mexico

Court ruling that freed Florence Cassez came in the midst of judicial reforms the nation is undertaking. But many Mexicans fear giving too many rights to defendants.

January 25, 2013|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Florence Cassez waves after arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. The French woman was freed from a Mexican prison after judges there ruled police had mishandled her case, which involved kidnapping charges.
Florence Cassez waves after arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport outside… (Bertrand Langlois, AFP/Getty…)

MEXICO CITY — In a country where citizens are regularly victimized by corrupt and abusive police, a court ruling freeing a woman from prison because of police mistreatment would seem welcome.

Instead, many Mexicans are outraged.

Ending a long legal case that had generated front-page headlines on two continents, the Mexican Supreme Court this week freed Florence Cassez, a 38-year-old French woman jailed for kidnapping, because authorities had trampled her right to due process.

The 3-2 ruling came in the midst of a sweeping judicial reform being implemented with millions of dollars in U.S. aid and a small army of U.S. advisors. Mexico is aiming to abandon its antiquated closed-door trial system, which critics say fosters a presumption of "guilty until proven innocent," in favor of open courts that look more like the U.S. system.

Such reform will inevitably grant more rights to the accused. In theory, more suspects like Cassez could be freed on technicalities, particularly if police continue to botch the arrests.

But instead of being regarded as a sign of progress, the court ruling was met with widespread anger from a population already beleaguered by kidnappings, killings and a raging drug war. On Thursday, the day after Cassez was released, the Mexico City newspaper Reforma published a poll indicating 83% of Mexicans opposed the decision.

"What do I think?" said Miguel Corona, 76, a lottery ticket salesman. "I think she was a kidnapper, and they let her go."

The decision will further embolden Mexico's criminal element, he said. "Now they're just going to go around killing and kidnapping people even more."

Given the level of frustration in Mexico and the charges against Cassez, her case was bound to stir intense emotions. She was arrested in December 2005; authorities said she was the girlfriend of an alleged leader of a kidnapping ring known as the Zodiacs and that she was living in a compound where kidnapping victims were held.

Cassez maintained from the beginning that she was unaware of the kidnappings. The Supreme Court judges who ruled in her favor did not address the question of her innocence or guilt. Rather, they focused on her treatment at the hands of federal police.

Judicial reforms that were passed in 2008 probably helped Cassez's cause. Although some legal experts say the concept was implicit in the previous law, one element of the reform is new language in the constitution that explicitly declares suspects to be innocent until proved guilty.

Supreme Court Judge Alfredo Gutierrez Ortiz Mena argued that the presumption of innocence had been ruined for Cassez when she appeared on television in a fake arrest that police staged for journalists. The staged arrest showed her in a house where kidnapping victims had been held, but she had actually been arrested the day before, in a car. Authorities also denied her a timely visit by French consular officials.

In an apparent response to the Cassez scandal, the Interior Ministry said Friday that it would require that federal police read Miranda-style rights to people they arrest, reminding them of their right to remain silent and that they are innocent until proved otherwise.

The 2008 reforms also prohibited the use of torture to elicit confessions, guaranteed defense attorneys for the poor, and mandated that a lawyer be present during police interrogations.

States were given until 2016 to replace their old "inquisitorial" models — in which trials are often held behind closed doors with judges considering evidence in writing — in favor of a model in which prosecutors and defense attorneys present their evidence and arguments in open court.

So far a dozen Mexican states have fully or partially implemented the reforms with the help of the U.S. government under the Merida Initiative, a massive, multiyear aid package that seeks to help the Mexican government fight the scourge of organized crime.

Selling the change hasn't always been easy. In July, a staff report to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted that reformers faced "an uphill battle against public opinion, given that many perceive the [new] system as overly lenient on the accused."

Jorge Castañeda, former foreign secretary, agreed with the court's decision in the Cassez case. But he said that many Mexicans were inured to a centuries-old system in which "confessions are considered valid even if they're not made in the presence of a judge, and without the presence of a lawyer for the defendant."

In Mexico, he said, "the notion of due process — that things have to be done a certain way in order for them to be accepted and valid and relevant — is a very alien notion."

Concern about the new reforms erupted as early as 2010 in the violence-plagued border state of Chihuahua during the closely watched case of a teenage girl named Rubi Marisol Frayre.

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