A Mexican police officer recently sentenced to an 8 1/2-year prison term for the murder of a North Hollywood man in a Baja California jail has been released from prison because an appeals court overturned his conviction.
The Mexican court order granting the officer freedom was an emotional blow to the dead man's older brother, who waged a noisy, high-profile campaign to identify and punish the killer and had celebrated the guilty verdict just four months ago.
"It is a defeat not only for the Amado family, but for the American people who had hoped there could be justice in Mexico when it comes to murdering an American," said Joe Amado of Sun Valley on Monday.
"Obviously, the [Mexican] police still have impunity to kill."
Amado and officials of the American consulate are still waiting to see a copy of the written order by the three-magistrate panel in Mexicali that issued the ruling to learn why they overturned the conviction of officer Jose Antonio Verduzco Flores.
Verduzco has steadfastly maintained he was not on duty at the Rosarito jail when 29-year-old Mario Amado died there. The high level of international political pressure generated by Joe Amado's campaign for justice caused Mexican officials to make him a scapegoat for a crime he did not commit, he said.
The officer's attorney, Marco Antonio Macklis of Tijuana, said Monday that he had seen the ruling and that the judges cleared his client of any wrongdoing.
Despite findings of numerous autopsies arranged by Joe Amado detailing his brother's injuries as inflicted by a beating, the judges expressed uncertainty on the cause of death. They said death could have been caused by injuries Amado suffered while roller-skating prior to his arrest, or the death could have been suicide, Macklis said.
The panel then determined that, even if a crime were committed, Verduzco could not be blamed "because he wasn't there when this guy died," Macklis said.
Under Mexican law, Verduzco cannot be tried again for the same offense, said Ignacio Garcia, a Rosarito prosecutor.
Macklis said that, after being in jail for three years during the trial, Verduzco hopes to return to the police force in Rosarito.
Macklis added that, because so much time has passed since Mario Amado's death, he doubted anyone else would be charged in the case.
Mario Amado was vacationing in Rosarito, a beach town south of Tijuana, in June 1992 when he was arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct after a fight with his girlfriend. After less than two hours in police custody, he was found dead in his jail cell.
Mexican authorities initially said he hanged himself with a pullover sweater. But independent autopsies conducted at the request of his family showed the young welder had been severely beaten and strangled with a rope.
In Mexico, the police version of such deaths usually stands. Human rights groups, which say the Mexican law enforcement system is rife with corruption, said the officer's arrest and subsequent conviction was unusual. They credited Joe Amado's campaign, which included picketing a border crossing, commissioning his own autopsies and enlisting the help of Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City).
Berman interested Mexico's then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in the case, and the indictment and conviction of Verduzco followed.
Nancy Leroy, public affairs officer for the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, said that under Mexico's legal system the Amado family could ask a federal appeals court to reverse the state appeals court ruling.
Monday, Joe Amado rejected the idea of further pursuing his brother's case through judicial channels, saying the latest ruling just confirms his belief that Mexican courts are corrupt. But he vowed to continue bringing pressure on the U.S. and Mexican governments.
"I'm just a little person who has a big mouth and I thought I won something, but in just a few minutes they took it away. But I have a lot of fight left," he said.