Thursday, August 10, 2006

My Day in Court

Your correspondent's current daytime assignment is supporting American citizens who run into trouble here in the Land of Eternal Spring. Mostly, that means replacing passports for long-term residents or those who are pickpocketed or careless. Sometimes it involves more serious trouble, like those who wind up in jail, or worse.

I was recently sent in the role of moral support for an American who was testifying in a murder trial. He had been here once before, but the Guatemalan court wouldn't let him testify because his passport only had one last name on it. Now he was back to suffer through more legalistic wrangling and questioning in what was clearly not his primary language. Because I was there in an official capacity, I probably shouldn't comment on any more details of the case, or present any opinions on the fairness or efficiency of the Guatemalan legal system that could be in variance with the official opinion of the United States. Ahem.

Stating the pure objective facts, it was interesting to see the less-than-imposing courtroom they used, which was your basic plaster-and-flourescent-light office space, with a panel of theree judges, and two lawyers each for the prosecution and the defense each sitting at what looked like 1970's-era standard issue government desks. The lawyers sat on opposite sides of the judges, facing their opponents. The really stylish touch was the sign behind each team of lawyers -- one reading "defensa" and the other reading "Ministerio Publico" (the Guatemalan version of the attorney general's office) -- printed by dot-matrix printer on 8 1/2" x 11" inkjet paper, held to the wall with strapping tape with the glue leeching a yellow cast into the paper, and each bearing it's own Powerpoint-style clip art of a group of men in suits (presumably lawyers). On the Clip-art for the Defense, some long-gone grafitti artist had darkened in the glasses of one of the lawyers, giving their team a certain bad-ass flair.

The event was extremely well documented, with a photographer and reporter there from every newspaper and TV station. They took a few pictures of the accused, and a lot more of the young witness, striking a blow for accurate reporting by thrusting their cameras within a couple feet of the subject's face, in case any of his pores or blackheads becomes a critical detail in the trial. Then they sat around, generally bored, while the judges debated points of procedure, and the prosecution asked a series of background questions. They sprung back into action in unison when the judges announced the decision on allowing the young man to testify even though his passport only had three of the required four names on it (they decided to provisionally allow him to testify for now, but if they could not provide further documentation of his identity soon, the testimony would be disregarded). And when the prosecution asked particularly pivotal questions, the cameras would start snapping, as if the picture of the witness responding to an important question would be substantially different than the hundred other pictures of him they already had.

Several of the key witnesses "could not be located," so the prosecution was given another date in two weeks to get them to turn up, so there was no resolution on this day. So the report will have to end there, possibly to be continued, but given the circumstances, probably not.

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