Layda Negrete and Roberto Hernández insist they are “lawyers with cameras,” not filmmakers. But the two doctoral candidates at University of California-Berkeley have produced one of this year’s most celebrated documentaries. Presunto Culpable (Presumed Guilty) tells the story of Mexico City native José Antonio “Toño” Zuñiga, who was arrested and charged in 2005 for a murder he didn’t commit and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The couple, who are married, followed the case for over two years as Toño appealed and eventually got a retrial. In the process, they created a chilling account of injustice and corruption within Mexico’s judicial and police systems.
The team never set out to make a film, but their investigation turned up shocking realities: 92 percent of convictions are made without physical evidence, and 93 percent of defendants never see a judge. These figures were ignored, says Hernández, “until we started using a camera.” With 300 hours of footage and the help of Australian director Geoffrey Smith (The English Surgeon, 2007), a poignant narrative emerged.
Presunto Culpable won awards on the 2009–2010 festival circuit, including “Best Documentary” at Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico. Over 2,000 people saw the film before Toño—who was acquitted in 2008 based on footage from the film—appeared. Tearful onlookers thanked him and asked forgiveness for their ignorance of the issue.
The filmmakers hope the film will spark a movement for reform in a country where defendants are still presumed guilty until proven otherwise.
After initial doubts about the profitability of the film, theater chain Cinépolis recently agreed to release the film in Mexico in December 2010.