Justice in Nicaragua?
--Brittany Harris, 360 Producer
American Eric Volz has been imprisoned in Nicaragua for more than a year for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Doris Jimenez, which he says he did not commit.
The evidence supporting his claim seems overwhelming, including an airtight alibi with 10 witnesses, cell phone and email records all putting him 2 hours away from the scene of the crime on the morning Doris was killed.
On Monday, an appeals court in Nicaragua agreed with Eric, overturning his conviction and ordering him immediately released from custody. However, the appeals court decision requires that the judge who originally convicted Eric, Ivette Toruno, must sign his release papers, and she has refused to do so.
The fact that one judge can single-handedly delay Eric from leaving prison even though his conviction has been overturned is unfortunately not surprising to me. I had first hand experience with Nicaragua's judicial system when I traveled there in April with correspondent Rick Sanchez and photojournalists Emmanuel Tambakakis and Dave Allbritton to cover Eric's story. We wanted to interview him in prison, but before we could do so, we needed permission from the very same judge Toruno.
We arrived in Rivas, Nicaragua on a blazing hot Wednesday afternoon and found the courthouse on a cobblestone street lined with small shops and cafes. We were there in keeping with the judge's orders to show her our passports, after which she said she would give us a letter allowing us access to the prison where Eric was being held.
With the help of our fixer, we found the judge's courtroom and explained why we were there. We told her we had followed her orders, we had come in person to request permission to interview Eric, and we had brought our passports and credentials. She went into her office to think it over.
After a few minutes, her assistant emerged with a signed document from the judge, giving permission for "3 journalists" to enter the prison. We asked if she could put our names on the letter, rather than "3 journalists," but the assistant said the letter would be fine and the judge would not be discussing the matter with us further. Discouraged, we had no choice but to take her word for it.
The next morning we hit the road early to pick up Eric's lawyer, who was going to accompany us to the prison. We drove to the prison and up to the gate with our letter from the judge, which we presented to the guard. He made a phone call, then had a long conversation with our fixer. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but his expression was enough: No.
Our fixer told us the problem: the judge hadn't specified our names. Without names, the prison wouldn't let us enter. The guard told us if we got a new letter with our names on it, he would let us in. This was at 10am.
For the next six hours, we stood outside the prison, trying to get a new letter. We called the judge's office in Rivas and were told she was at her other office in Grenada.
We called her Grenada office and they told us she was in Rivas. We tried to talk to the guards again, we said clearly this is a mistake, the judge herself had said that our names weren't necessary, but they would not relent. We left messages for the judge at all of her offices but we never heard back.
By refusing to take our calls, she effectively barred us from entering the prison, even though it seemed like she had given permission. I guess we will never know if that was her intention, but my guess is that it was.
This week, the refusal of the judge to sign Eric's release papers has allowed time for the prosecutor in Eric's case to appeal his acquittal to the Supreme Court. The order of the appeals court to immediately release Eric is apparently being ignored, and the Supreme Court in Nicaragua may take years to hear his case. He is in prison at this moment, and remains at the mercy of the Nicaraguan judicial system.