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POV: Presumed Guilty

In Presumed Guilty, the "lawyers with cameras" expose systemic problems: they arrange to document their library research, their observations of Toño in prison, and their interviews with witnesses


POV: Presumed Guilty

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: José Antonio Zúñiga Rodriguez, Roberto Hernández, Layda Negrete
Network: PBS
Director: Roberto Hernández, Geoffrey Smith, Layda Negrete
Air date: 2010-07-27
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As soon as you're in here, you're useless. You're worthless, you're nobody. You're guilty.

When we brought the camera to court, we balanced things out.

-- Roberto Hernández

"Fear is what got me here," says José Antonio Zúñiga Rodriguez. "I was afraid to stand up for my rights, afraid to question my lawyer." As Presumed Guilty begins, Rodriguez, nicknamed Toño, is in prison, sentenced to 20-50 years for murdering a man he didn't know in 2005. At the time, he remembers, he proclaimed his innocence and protested his treatment at the hands of police (who refused to tell him why they had picked him up and cajoled a young "witness" into identifying him) and the conviction, made without evidence, based only on the police "file," written before he came near a courtroom.

Rodriguez's fate seems set until he meets Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete, self-identified as the “Lawyers with Cameras.” Toño’s girlfriend, Eva, contacts them when she hears they have, as Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) legal researchers, tracked an alarming history of corruption in the Mexican justice system (for instance, 93% of inmates never see an arrest warrant, and 93% of defendants never see a judge, but only lawyers collecting checks and clerks who file their papers). Though they are on their way to Berkeley, the young lawyers are moved by the extreme unfairness of Toño’s case, and agree to take on his appeal.

Their first legal step is exposure: the lawyers arrange to document their library research, their observations of Toño in prison, and their interviews with witnesses who place Toño far from the murder scene. They also bring the camera with them into the courtroom, which makes for some remarkable footage of Mexico's daunting, complicated process of questioning and presuming.

The resulting film, directed by Hernández, Negrete, and Geoffrey Smith, has been cut to an hour's length for its premiere as part of PBS' POV series on 27 July (in fact, the shorter version cuts back on some of the original's repetition, making its argument that much more acute). Some of their image choices imagine Toño’s state of mind: scenes inside the prison show him walking long, grim hallways, barbed wire and graffitied walls in the background, and leaning on the wall of his overcrowded cell, as he narrates, describing his brief sense of relief while dancing (“It's like not being in prison. It’s like escaping, not being here for a while”), and his sorrow looking at his fellow prisoners, many innocent and, he adds, "What's worse, all young men: Mexico's future."

The cause for this portentous observation is made clear in the footage taken outside the prison. Here, Presumed Guilty lays out the many barriers facing the lawyers as they bring the case back before a judge, including the daunting news that they will be facing the same judge, Hector Palomares, who sent Toño to prison in the first place. The defense team brings in a respected lawyer, Rafael Heredia, who finds numerous flaws and gaps in the original file, even as he reveals that, according to the law, they are unable to challenge these points. And so they must make use of the structural peculiarities of the Mexican court system, namely, that the courtroom resembles an office space, with desks, cubicles, and papers strewn over desks, wherein lawyers, detectives, and Victor, the primary witness against Toño back in 2005, walk and sit freely, while the defendant is literally caged. The judge stands generally between Toño and the others, repeating each line spoken so that the court reporter can transcribe.

This arrangement make for a dramatic set of scenes, sometimes arranged as a literal split screen by the filmmakers and just as often just looking like one, as Toño gazes on the proceedings from behind a grate (the camera also shoots from his point of view on occasion, suggesting the tiny space where he sits as well as the limits on his vision). Both Palomares and Heredia are given to low-key histrionics, plainly used to matching wits over language and logic in such situations (among the most egregious illogics presented here is the system by which anything already described in the original file cannot be revisited in the form of lawyers' questions).

The question-and-answer format also draws attention to the narrative of the trial -- tense pauses, nervous faces, and, set off in a background, Eva and Toño’s sisters and mother, hanging on to every detail, their anxiety showcased in close-ups and slow zooms. After Heredia’s questions lead the arresting officers to insist they don’t remember anything about the case (and also lead Toño to call one of them a liar), the case is officially reopened, but the lawyers are not allowed to speak. Instead, Negrete narrates, in a proceeding called "face-offs," the defendant is allowed to question the detectives and then young Victor. Tape recordings of their phone conversations play over images of the prison and the police file room -- both equally bleak scenes -- as Toño worries he may not remember what he needs to ask. And then he finds his own route through the procedure, saying, "When dancing, we have a rule: if you screw up, dance over it. You can't bang your head against the wall. You’ve got to go on."

When the arresting officer dismisses his own incompetence with an especially toxic tautology ("If you were arrested by my agents and you're behind bars, it's because you're guilty"), Toño takes on Victor, the camera tight on the defendant's eyes blinking hard through the cage, just as the witness starts to fumble in his own story. As Toño works to keep his composure, he speaks meticulously, his words rehearsed even as his fate remains uncertain.

The scene is remarkably moving, the cuts on beat of questions and answers, the two young men facing and mirroring one another as they realize either might be in either's position, coerced by the cops into lying or lied about, neither safe on the streets of Mexico City as long as this "justice" system remains in place. In focusing on this profound give and take, as well as other performances -- by lawyers, judges, and witnesses -- Presumed Guilty underlines the combination of guile, theatricality, and self-consciousness that sustains this very system, and might also, at least on this occasion, be its undoing.

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