Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Raging Cassez debate spotlights Mexico's unique emphasis on crime victims' rights

MGRR News Analysis -
Kidnap victims take their case directly to highest judges in the country

In an American, British or Canadian courtroom a crime victim is questioned at a public trial by prosecutors and defense attorneys, in accord with strict rules of direct and cross examination which were developed and have been exhaustively refined over centuries. In theory, at least, the purpose of the rules is to get to the truth of the matter - at least to the best of a human being's ability to ascertain the truth about anything. At times the system works quite well, and other times it backfires miserably. Courts are generally no better than the judges and attorneys who comprise them, and lack of skill, preparation and/or general incompetency can and does affect the ultimate outcome . . . much in the same way that a harried surgeon occasionally saws off the left leg, when the medical chart so plainly directed him to amputate the right one. That's why professionals like to remind their clients and patients, "it's an art, not a science."

One thing is clear in the Anglo-American system of criminal justice, however. Apart from his or her trial testimony - when the witness is seated just a few meters from an elevated bench, occupied by a stern (at times bored) looking figure robed in black - the witness never has any direct personal contact with the judge. Such would be unthinkable, and a serious violation of every rule of legal ethics. The general idea is that the judicial officer must not be influenced in the slightest in his or her decisions and rulings by considerations of sympathy for the victim. Not that victims don't occasionally stop by the courthouse in an effort to lobby the judge assigned to the case in which they were a victim. But they don't make it far. Entering a U.S. federal court these days involves about the same security protocol as entering the White House, and one's chance of meeting face to face with a federal judge is the same as running into Barack Obama on the Grey Lines tour of Washington, D.C.

Which brings us to Mexico and the point of this post. Next week the highest tribunal in this country, the Supreme Judicial Court, will take up the Florence Cassez case. If you're not already familiar with the basics, you can read them here: Controversy flares in Florence Cassez case. One of the ministers (judges) of the court has called for the immediate liberation of Cassez, a 37 year old French woman who is five years into a 60 year sentence for kidnapping and other serious crimes. It's Cassez last bid for freedom. There's no higher court to which she can appeal. If she wins, she'll likely be on the next Air France flight to Paris. If she loses, she'd better learn to imagine that the daily chow hall fare of frijol, arroz y tortilla de maíz is a sumptuous pâté de foie in a trendy Rive Gauche restaurant.

The Cassez case is all over the news here, with hourly updates. The kidnap victims are giving media interviews, and today two of them met with three of the Supreme Court ministers - the very judges who next week will have to decide this hot potato case. The victims say that there is no doubt that Cassez was one of their kidnappers (they were blindfolded part of the time, but claim to recognize her French accent). They demand that she serve every day of the remaining 55 years. The argument to free Cassez is based exclusively on legal technicalities, not on her actual guilt or innocence.

As a U.S. educated and trained attorney it's astounding to me that victims were allowed to meet with some of the highest judges in the nation - to discuss the factual details of the case, no less. It would be unfathomable in the States. But in Mexico it's considered normal and appropriate. I suspect that some who have been crime victims in more northerly latitudes feel it should be the same way there.

My bet: the full court will not overturn Cassez' conviction and 60 year sentence. But although I believe she was convicted on sufficient evidence, the penalty is ridiculously excessive. Mexico forbids capital punishment, but thinks nothing of sentencing someone to more years in prison than many people live. If you're going to hand out six decades in a Mexican prison in a case in which no one was killed, and where the victims were held against their will for less than two months, be merciful with the accused: take him/her out into the back lot and put a bullet in the head. This case warrants a sentence of no more than 10-20 years, tops.

Jan. 10, 2013 - Florence Cassez, once more to Mexico's Supreme Court

Blind Mexican justice - but for everyone?
Supreme Court upholds Florence Cassez conviction, 60 year sentence - for now

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