Mexico's legal soul search after Frenchwoman freed

Frenchwoman Florence Cassez reacts with her mother Charlotte, right, at Roissy airport, north of Paris, Thursday, Jan.24, 2013 shortly after landing. Cassez, who spent seven years in prison in Mexico on kidnapping charges returned to a hero�s welcome in Paris on Thursday, declaring she had been cleared by the Mexican court that ordered her freed. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Frenchwoman Florence Cassez reacts with her mother Charlotte, right, at Roissy airport, north of Paris, Thursday, Jan.24, 2013 shortly after landing. Cassez, who spent seven years in prison in Mexico on kidnapping charges returned to a hero�s welcome in Paris on Thursday, declaring she had been cleared by the Mexican court that ordered her freed. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexicans are engaged in national soul searching over their country's flawed justice system as newly freed Florence Cassez, earlier convicted of and sentenced for being part of a kidnapping ring, makes the celebrity circuit in her native France.

Although Cassez received a hero's welcome home Thursday, many people in Mexico used the same word to describe their reaction to her release: "Indignation." Mexican authorities moved to make sure that whatever went amiss with the Cassez case doesn't happen again.

Without ruling on her culpability, Mexico's Supreme Court voted 3-2 to release Cassez because of procedural and rights violations during her arrest, including police staging a recreation of her capture for the news media. The justices said Wednesday that violations of due process, the right to consular assistance and evidentiary rules in the case were so grievous that they invalidated the original guilty verdict against her.

President Enrique Pena Nieto said he ordered the secretary of the interior and attorney general to take all measures necessary to ensure police procedures are followed in future cases, and prevent something similar from happening again. The leftist Democratic Revolution Party explored prosecuting former Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna, who headed the federal police unit that staged Cassez's 2005 arrest.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said he would reopen the case just to study what went wrong. "It's my duty to see if the bad handling is the product of an act that could be a crime," he said.

While underscoring how a string of judicial reforms in Mexico still fail on nearly all counts, the case also severely strained relations between the two countries. Two French presidents, Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, had fought for the woman's freedom.

Mexicans angered by Cassez's release are skeptical that the problems with the case will lead to any meaningful change in a system where an estimated 98 percent of crimes go unprosecuted. Innocent people frequently are jailed in Mexico while criminals behind the country's astronomically high kidnapping rate are seen to enjoy widespread impunity.

Isabel Navarrete, a 33-year-old mother feeding frozen yoghurt to her baby on Mexico City's broad Paseo de la Reforma, blamed the country's institutions for the state of affairs.

"There is no credibility in the institutions of justice and lot of pain and indignation among the families who suffered," said Navarrete, calling the national handwringing over the case a "smoke screen."

"If anything, it will get a little worse," she said.

Edgar Martinez, 36, of Mexico City, said the court had no power in the face of diplomatic deals made between two countries.

"Bilateral favors between countries supersede the pain of whatever family," he said Thursday, walking near the iconic Angel of Independence monument.

In France, Cassez was greeted by a red carpet and television cameras when she returned Thursday. The 38-year-old looked rested and buoyant for having spent seven years of a 60-year sentence following her conviction on kidnapping charges. "I was cleared," she declared to the throngs of journalists waiting to receive her, even though the justices pointedly did not rule whether she was guilty or not.

French media reported that Hollande's partner, Valerie Trierweiler, sent Cassez a care package with makeup, chocolate and books. Cassez and her family will meet Friday with the presidential couple at the Elysee Palace.

After her arrest, the Frenchwoman said she had lived with her then-Mexican boyfriend at the ranch where the kidnapping victims were held, but didn't know they were there. At least one victim identified Cassez as one of the kidnappers, though only by hearing her voice, not by seeing her.

After Cassez was detained and held incognito for a day, Mexican police hauled her back to the ranch and forced her to participate in a raid staged for the television cameras, a display that is not unusual in Mexico.

Mexico also has long been plagued by police torture and the fabrication of evidence, and over the years countless prisoners have been convicted on bad evidence.

Such corruption remains rampant despite a 2008 constitutional amendment to reform the antiquated system from a written, closed trial system to open proceedings with oral arguments. But most of Mexico's 31 states still have yet to implement the changes. Even in one that has, Chihuahua, judges were punished for freeing a defendant the public believed to be guilty. They said they were forced to because of improperly gathered evidence.

It's unclear whether the ruling will influence other cases in demanding that defendants' right and due process be followed in prosecution and gathering evidence, said John Ackerman of the Institute of Legal Research at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

"The hope is that both the criminal justice reform and this kind of decision would create a demand that crimes be investigated in a more professional manner," Ackerman said. "Just new rules and decisions are not enough. You need institutional transformation and political will and political independence for these investigators, which is something we haven't achieved yet."

Still, Ricardo Sepulveda, a constitutional and human rights expert, remains optimistic that the outrage over the release of Cassez could lead to reform.

"I understand that right now we are in a difficult and confusing moment, but the message has been given, the procurement of justice has to follow due process," said Sepulveda, who heads the National Citizens Observatory for Security, Justice and Legality. "There is no other path for us to get out of the security crisis that we have in this country."

____

Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.
Associated Press
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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