Monday, May 7, 2007

Nifonged in Nicaragua: Two New Volz Articles

The Washington Post and WORLD Magazine have published lengthy articles today on the Nicaraguan nifonging of Eric Volz. Both pieces offer comprehensive details of the case.

An American's Kafkaesque Encounter With Nicaragua's Justice System

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 Jiminez, 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 Gutierrez, 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, Ramon 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 Jim?nez 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. Jim?nez'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 Martin Chamorro, with whom Volz said he had only a passing acquaintance.

Final verdict
Nicaragua: American Eric Volz awaits an end to his case that U.S. friends—and U.S. officials—have so far been powerless to sway

Maggie Anthony is hoping for a Mother's Day victory party, but she doesn't expect one.

It was 3:56 p.m. in Nashville on Feb. 16—minutes after a verdict was read—when Maggie Anthony got a call that was supposed to end the nightmare she'd lived for 84 days. On the other end was Miami-based attorney Jacqueline Becerra, whose call was supposed to affirm that justice had prevailed in a Nicaragua courtroom. Maggie had been preparing a homecoming for her son, Eric Volz, imprisoned in Nicaragua for a crime he says he didn't commit.

But Becerra's call brought the one piece of news it wasn't supposed to: "It's a guilty verdict." Volz, 27, an American resident of Nicaragua who ran a bilingual magazine called El Puente—"The Bridge"—was first convicted on Thanksgiving Day of raping and murdering his ex-girlfriend, Doris Ivania Jiménez, 25. He would soon be sent to La Modelo, a max-security prison outside the capital city of Managua, to begin serving a sentence of 30 years.

Maggie Anthony and her husband Dane, Volz's stepfather, took up temporary residence in a Managua hotel to tangle with Volz-fixated media that had formed a verbal lynch mob. Dane quit his job as an associate dean at Belmont University, and Maggie expressed her outrage about a verdict that she says resulted from emotions, anger, fear of the mobs, a vicious media agenda, and a few firebrand gringo haters.

The evidence should have made the Volz trial a defense lawyer's dream. Ten witnesses submitted sworn statements that Volz was in Managua when the murder occurred in the beach community of San Juan del Sur, 90 miles away on a narrow, undulating road complete with dangerous potholes and locals who push carts right down the middle. The trip normally takes three hours.

Phone records corroborate Volz's claim that he learned of Jiménez's murder when a friend called at 2:43 p.m. A Hertz rental car printout that reads 3:11 p.m. corroborates his story that he drove to San Juan del Sur only after he heard of the murder. None of the 103 hair, blood, and fluid samples found at the scene of the crime match Volz's.

The prosecution trumped all of that evidence with its only eyewitness, Nelson López Danglas, who began the case as a co-defendant but was released, despite having scratches on his back and penis, in return for his testimony against Volz. He said Volz was inside Jiménez's store at 1 p.m., which fits her time of death between 11:45 a.m. and 1 p.m. If true, his testimony gives Volz less than two hours to return to Managua before the call at 2:43 p.m. (The caller testified that she spoke to him, and phone records verify that it took place in Managua.)

Judge Ivette Toruño's guilty verdict—which came without a jury trial at Volz's request—relied heavily on two parallel scratch marks on Volz's right shoulder. Volz was arrested the day of Jiménez's funeral, after serving as a pallbearer. He said he got the marks from bearing the brunt of her coffin's weight at an angle, since he was slightly taller than the others. Toruño disagreed: "Carrying a coffin is never, ever going to leave those scratches on anyone." Video footage from the funeral shows Volz indeed bearing the brunt—on his right shoulder.

Ricardo Castillo, a prominent Nicaraguan journalist who testified he was meeting with Volz in Managua when the murder occurred, says that Nicaraguans labeled Volz (falsely, he says) as the rich, unlawful, irresponsible gringo living it up in Nicaragua who, guilty or not, got what he had coming. The trial was in a tiny courtroom as crowds of 300 waited outside (sometimes with machetes and clubs). During the first hearing, an angry mob chased Volz and a U.S. Embassy worker into a nearby building that the two barricaded to taunts of "Come out, gringo, because we are going to kill you!"

"You can see what enormous pressure the judge was under," Dane says. "It doesn't excuse it, but she has to live with these people."

Mercedes Alvarado, mother of the slain woman, expresses a different view of the trial results. She sees Volz's attorney, Ramón Rojas, as the lawyer who orchestrated Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega's acquittal in a 2001 sexual abuse case that his stepdaughter brought against him. (Lots of Nicaraguans resent the tactics that Rojas employed; many are sure bribery took place.) She thinks he used similar tactics in the Volz case: She argues that Rojas paid off witnesses and experts, like the forensic examiner who admitted the blood-sample error. She claims that the Volz defense tried to give her $1 million before the trial to drop the charges.

To this, the Volz camp wonders: From where and why? The family says money was always scarce, plus Alvarado wouldn't have had authority to drop criminal charges. Alvarado says that it might have been a ploy to see if her scruples had a buyout price. She didn't want money. "What I need is my daughter," she told El Nuevo Diario.

Volz's parents largely view that paper as the great antagonist. "Before the trial even began," Maggie says, "he was tried in the papers . . . with headlines like 'What crown does Volz wear?'" She says she contacted El Nuevo Diario directly to request an interview: The paper declined. The defense team offered up its trial arguments for publication: No again. The Volz family ultimately bought an ad in the paper and listed them.

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