'Presunto Cupable' has reach beyond theaters

Documentary credited with freeing prisoner

Mexico City -- When two lawyers were filming a retrial of a Mexico City street vendor falsely imprisoned for murder, Mexico's archaic judicial system had no place to hide.

Their recently screened doc "Presunto Culpable" (Presumed Guilty) reveals a legal system steeped in incompetence and corruption.

Fortunately, this story has a rare happy ending.

In December 2005, police arrested Jose Antonio Zuniga in a working-class Mexico City neighborhood on suspicion of homicide. The prosecution based its case on the testimony of a lone witness who claimed Zuniga had shot a man in the street. Even though prosecutors had no compelling evidence beyond that of a dubious witness, a judge sentenced Zuniga to 20 years in prison.

After the initial trial, Zuniga's family and friends contacted Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete, two Mexican lawyers residing in Berkeley, Calif. They had heard about a short doc the couple had made, entitled "The Tunnel," which helped spring an innocent man from prison. Hernandez and Negrete agreed to help Zuniga.

Curiously, the two attorneys have no filmmaking background. So they turned to cinematographer John Grillo ("Rudo y Cursi"), doc director Geoffrey Smith ("The English Surgeon") and Mexican producer Martha Sosa.

During the Kafkaesque trial process, they compiled more than 300 hours of footage. Smith helped them simplify and bring clarity to the story as they sorted out the material.

Well over two years into his sentence and after a failed retrial, Zuniga's nightmare finally came to an end when an appeals court judge watched the recordings of the trial and then ordered Zuniga's release based on insufficient evidence. Lawyers with Cameras, Hernandez and Negrete's production venture, had triumphed once again.

Zuniga's plight is not uncommon in Mexico. As the film's title implies, Mexican law presumes suspects are guilty until proven innocent.

After screenings at the recent Toronto and Morelia film fests (it nabbed best doc at the latter), the filmmakers face a new challenge: using the film as a tool to push for judicial reform. Most immediately they plan free screenings as well as a radio and Internet campaign.

"There are many things that can be done -- like, for example, installing cameras in the courts," Hernandez said. "The film is about complete system overhaul."

Canada's Film Transits is handling international sales.

Several distributors have expressed interest in picking up the film for a commercial theatrical release in Mexico.