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Mexico Takes First Step to Overhauling Criminal Law

The Northern Mexican State of Nuevo Leon has taken the first step toward open court criminal trials by allowing lawyers to stand up and argue their case before a judge. For the past 75 years the criminal procedure required the trial judge to sift through piles of papers filed by both sides and hand down a decision without ever hearing the defendant.

Under the new procedure the first open court trial, involving a truck driver charged with reckless driving, lasted only nine days. Under the old procedure, lawyers say, it would have lasted months. The judge, at the end of the trial, found 19-year-old Alejandro Javier Santana guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to three years in jail for a truck accident in which one person died and another was paralyzed.

A veteran criminal lawyer from Mexico City, Roberto Palazuelos, says the new procedure is much more efficient than the old bureaucratic system. He says it will also free overworked judges who often handed down judgments drafted by their clerks.

"In fact there are so many cases, that they give these projects [draft judgments] of final resolutions to persons who prepare them," he said. "And it is sad to say that in many cases also, that the judge will accept a resolution prepared as a project, as final. So the question is who is the judge then? The judge is the paralegal who prepared the project of the resolution, and this is terrible."

President Vicente Fox has submitted legislation to Mexican lawmakers to make the open-court trial a standard practice nationwide. Under his proposal, criminal cases would be heard and decided by a judge, rather than a jury.

Alonso Aguilar Zinser, who has defended such high profile clients such Raul Salinas the older brother of former President Carlos Salinas, says that the transformation of Mexico's trial practice would be a quick process, once the legislation has been adopted.

"When the Federal Congress approves the modifications of the Federal Constitution, and the Federal Criminal laws, we are going to have in no more than two years, all the state's legislations [laws] modified according to this new system," he said. "I think it is very possible in this government with Mr. Fox, we are going to have the approval of this project of the modification of the system."

A member of the Criminal Law Commission, Ernesto Soriano, says most lawyers and legislators are opposed to criminal trials by juries, as in the United States, or a panel of judges, as in France. But, he says, most lawyers are in favor of the new system of arguing their cases in open court before a qualified judge.

"It is very easy working with these federal judges, because federal judges in general, I told you, are very qualified people, so I am very calm about this matter," he said.

Mr. Soriano says he is confident that revamping Mexico's criminal trial system can be accomplished within the current administration of President Fox, whose term has one more year to run.