Thursday, March 8, 2012

Controversy flares in Florence Cassez case: a French national sentenced to 60 years

"Florence Cassez doit payer pour ce qu´elle a fait," writes a local reader ("Florence Cassez must pay for what she did.")

*Links added below Jan. 23, 2013*
L'affaire Florence Cassez (I'm practicing my French, bear with me) is a long and very complicated criminal case, but it's a fascinating one.

Florence Marie Louise Cassez Crepin is a 37 year old French woman who has been sitting in a Mexican jail cell since 2005. She was arrested and prosecuted for belonging to a gang known as Los Zodiaco (The Zodiacs), which the government says specialized in kidnappings (apparently for no reason other than ransom). Cassez was found guilty and is currently serving a 60 year sentence for kidnapping, participation in organized crime activity and possession of illegal firearms. The case has become an international cause célèbre - at least insofar as Mexico and France are concerned - and has created severe diplomatic tension between the two countries. Florence Cassez has always maintained her complete innocence.

Cassez got into her present predicament after traveling to Mexico in 2003 and hooking up with a man named Israel Vallarta. The two had a stormy and mercurial dating relationship. They lived together for an extended period, during which time Vallarata was the self-admitted leader of Los Zodiaco. He's in jail, too, and may well be for the rest of his life. Vallarta claims that Cassez knew nothing of his gang leadership or kidnapping activities.

Th evidence at trial was not overwhelming, but neither was it anemic. The kidnapping victims were allegedly confined in small huts in a rural compound where Cassez and Vallarta lived during their time together. They occupied the main house on the property, and the huts were only a few meters behind it. But militating against that evidence was the testimony of neighbors - including one couple who had keys to the property - who claimed never to have seen or heard anything abnormal or suspicious.

Some of the victims were blindfolded during much of their captivity, especially when they had direct contact with gang members. But they insisted at trial that they would never forget Cassez' heavy French accent when she spoke to them in Spanish. There's perhaps no testimony more inherently unreliable than that of a native speaker of any language who claims to recognize the voice or personal "accent" of a non-native speaker. That evidence was exhaustively challenged by defense attorneys, and remains somewhat equivocal.

The case is legally messy for other reasons as well. The rural compound was raided and Cassez and Vallarata were arrested in December, 2005. Mexican police officials held the pair overnight, and in the interim tipped off media sources that they were going to make a big arrest the next day at that location. When the media appeared, police "re-arrested" the couple and "re-released" the captive hostages for the TV cameras. It was all a staged event. Those factors in reality may have little to do with the merits of the case, but they didn't make law enforcement officials look very good. Finally, one prosecution witness who claimed that Cassez was a willing member of Los Zodiaco later recanted his testimony and said that he had been tortured by police. Despite all this, over years of post-trial litigation Mexican appellate courts have upheld Cassez' conviction and draconian sentence.

Then yesterday one of the judges or "ministers" of the Mexican Supreme Judicial Court, as they're called here, filed a report suggesting that the entire case was so fraught with legal errors and irregularities that Cassez should be freed immediately and unconditionally. He reviewed the conflicting and contradictory evidence presented at trial, but two technical factors appeared to trouble him the most. First, the staged re-arrest and resultant media show prevented Cassez from promptly being brought before a judicial officer, which was her right under the Mexican criminal code. Second, French consular officials were not notified of her arrest (or at least not for a long time). The latter was a violation of treaties between Mexico and France, as well as international law. These factors, the minister contends, infected the prosecution to such an extent that the conviction must be nullified.

The full Supreme Court will take up the case later this month. Today officials of the Felipe Calderón administration sharply defended their prosecution of Cassez, whom they insist is guilty as charged. They maintain her conviction was procured "in strict accordance with law," and they promised to fight to keep her behind bars. For his part, French president Nicolas Sarkozy - a staunch and vigorous advocate for Cassez and her parents over years - has expressed confidence that "the Mexican judicial system will do what is right." Last year Sarkozy fairly begged Mexico to release Cassez to French jurisdiction, and at least allow her to serve out the sentence in her own country. But the government here wouldn't budge, and the French public (for the most part) railed in angry frustration. Proof enough that Mexican justice is not to be toyed with lightly.

A final note. In recent years several foreign nationals (primarily Mexicans) have been executed in the U.S., mainly in Texas. In a few of those instances consular officials were not notified by American officials after the men's arrests. Since that was a clear violation of treaties between the two countries, the defendants and their attorneys (actively supported by the Mexican government) asked that their convictions be overturned, or at a minimum that they be spared the death penalty. In each such case the condemned men lost their appeals and ultimately were executed. The courts reasoned that unless some direct prejudice could be demonstrated, the failure to notify consular officials - although admittedly a violation of international treaties and law - was an irrelevant technicality. So in the United States foreign citizens have been put to death in cases involving the same legal issue which could now result in complete freedom for Florence Cassez.

* A Milenio network poll this evening reports that 58% of Mexicans believe that Florence Cassez is indeed guilty and was fairly tried and convicted on the evidence.

** For those interested in Mexican law, the procedural remedy that the Supreme Court is considering in the Cassez case is called amparo, which tests the lawfulness of one's conviction and detention. It's a rough approximation of Anglo-American habeas corpus, although far broader and more powerful. More then a few convicted defendants in this country have walked out of jail cells after successfully petitioning for a writ of amparo.

Jan. 23, 2013 - Mexican Supreme Court orders Florence Cassez freed
Jan. 23, 2013 - Opinion: No justice for Mexicans in Florence Cassez ruling

Update May 22 - Confirma "El Chaparro" participación de Cassez en plagios:

Blind Mexican justice - but for everyone?:
Supreme Court upholds Florence Cassez conviction, 60 year sentence - for now:
Cassez debate spotlights Mexico's unique emphasis on crime victims' rights:

Other legal matters:
Mexico's high court rejects lie detectors, drug tests, psych profiles for political candidates:
Mexico's Supreme Court rules in same sex marriage case:
Mexico's Supreme Court fails to overturn state anti-abortion laws:
Abortion issue likely to be revisited by Mexican courts:


  1. Florence Cassez confess that she was part of the kidnapping group. Retained persons afirm that she was part of the gangsters group too. Finally Mexican Governement is trying to finish with gangsters and reduce corruption, but Mexican Judicial Court release convicts just because the process is not 100% clean, even if the kidnaped persons are all agree that she was involve. So where are the rights of all the people kidnaped? Or killed, violated, stealed ? because this kind of people are not disired in Mexico or any other society. In Mexico regular people is afraid and tired of gangsters, kidnaping killing, stealing, and bad Justice work from Mexican court. For this reason you can see more and more Mexican people lynching "gangsters" because we do not trust in Mexican Justice, releasing gangsters, killers, thiefs, violators, included corrupted polititiens.
    I can tell you Florence Cassez is an undesired person. Florence Cassez has to pay for what she did.
    Florence Cassez doit payer pour ce qu´elle a fait. Florence Cassez debe pagar por lo que hizo.

  2. who are you trying to impress ? You said Israel Vallarta is in Jail ? Where ? Can you see that your article is full of lies. Don't you double check your sources, anymore ? The orther day i saw an article in the Wall street journal : the US are going to "teach" the mexican policemen and enforcers on how to put people on trial properly, like it's even going to happen. Mexico is so corrupted it's not even funny anymore and you're trying to gain back credibility as a "free country
    ". I love Mexico but the problem is people like you that do not know what the hell they are talking about ! Because you work for a paper doesn't give the right to trash someone for no reason. Do you konw whow is Eduardo Margolis ( that's not his real name, ex-Mossad agent and ex business partner of Florence's brother. Go ahead, try to talk to him. Let see what you are made of. You think you are so strong. Let's wait and see.

  3. In the interest of freedom of expression, and because I believe in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and Article 6 of the Mexican Constitution, I'm publishing your comment.

    My readers will evaluate it correctly, I believe, but in the meantime, have you checked in with your personal therapist lately? I think a meds review might be in order.