An American's Kafkaesque Encounter With Nicaragua's Justice System
Monday, May 7, 2007
SAN JUAN DEL SUR, Nicaragua -- He was 27, living in an exotic country and dreaming of a bright future. Now, Eric Volz, a brash and ambitious magazine editor from San Diego, is serving a 30-year prison term for a heinous crime he says he didn't commit: the rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend.
To the natives of this picturesque Pacific Coast village, a budding magnet for tourists and retirees from the United States, there is no doubt that Volz is guilty. He became so jealous of Doris Jiménez, they say, that he and at least one other man hogtied her in the tiny fashion store she ran, then raped and suffocated her, ramming paper and cloth down her throat.
"There was proof," said Xiomara Gutiérrez, among the residents certain of Volz's guilt. "And he's in jail, isn't he?"
But court documents, along with interviews with witnesses and lawyers, suggest the verdict was heavily influenced by small-town passions and a desire for swift justice. Facing a relentless media campaign and protests against him organized by the victim's mother, Volz found himself in a Kafkaesque nightmare, his family and other supporters say. An alibi that might have led an American jury to acquit was cast aside.
The judge, meanwhile, appeared convinced by assertions from the victim's relatives that Volz had dangerous obsessions.
"Why were the family and friends testifying that I was a jealous guy?" Volz said in a telephone interview from La Modelo prison outside Managua, the capital. "It was convenient for them. They wanted me to be convicted, but it's not true."
Volz's conviction in February, in the town of Rivas, points to the weaknesses of a highly politicized judicial system, according to legal experts. Eduardo Bertoni, executive director of the Washington-based Due Process of Law Foundation, a policy group that works to improve justice systems in Latin America, said that the lack of judicial independence in Nicaragua "ends up affecting everything."
"When the judges are not professional, and political considerations lead to their appointments, well, you can await whatever decision," he said.
On the surface, Volz had seemed to have everything on his side. He had an experienced defense attorney, Ramón Rojas, who had successfully represented the current president, Daniel Ortega, in a criminal case in 1998. He had an alibi, with 10 witnesses telling police they were with him at the time the crime occurred. And he had phone and instant-messaging records that put him at his Managua home, a 2 1/2 -hour drive from the scene of the crime, when Jiménez was killed.
But Volz found himself in an increasingly volatile climate that spun out of his control, in part because of his own impetuous behavior after the killing. Jiménez's relatives and authorities said they saw his offer to pay for an autopsy and his bickering with police as signs of culpability.
The victim's mother, Mercedes Alvarado, railed against Volz, and a Managua newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, mounted an impassioned campaign against him. At one point, dozens of protesters tried to lynch him as he was being transferred from the courthouse.
In the end, Volz was found guilty after a three-day trial, along with a San Juan del Sur surfer, Julio Martín Chamorro, with whom Volz said he had only a passing acquaintance.