Public Defenders Honing Their Skills in Mexico’s Zacatecas State

Roberto Valdez has become a reference for good public defense in Zacatecas

Zacatecas

Roberto Valdez is a public defender because it is his passion. He has done this work for the Mexican state of Zacatecas since 2002.

“Guaranteeing someone justice is essential,” he says, which makes his institution essential in the state justice system.

But Valdez and his colleagues learned in 2008 that their work would be changing, as the federal government had just passed the sweeping Criminal Justice Reform. The implications of the New Criminal Justice System (NCJS) were daunting for this public defender.

“The change was a big challenge,” he says. “I told my cowork-ers, if we don’t keep up, we will soon become obsolete.”

The changes meant Valdez and other public defenders wouldn’t be fighting cases on paper as they had in the old system. They would be fighting cases live in public courtrooms in front of a judge and spectators. This required a whole new set of skills.

USAID’s Promoting Justice Project (PROJUST) and its prede-cessors have been accompanying the Zacatecas Public De-fender’s Office since 2009 when the NCJS was launched in this central Mexican state. In Fiscal Year 2015 alone, 551 operators benefited from USAID-funded training across Mexico, including 41 from Zacatecas.

“We had the good fortune of being able to start USAID training soon after the change,” says Valdez. “We were taught how to implement the new system by people from different parts of Mexico and the world.”

Valdez and his colleagues learned oral litigation skills through mock trials and were taught the key elements for building a strong case under the new system. One of the most valuable skills Valdez picked up was conducting his own investigations. Under the new National Criminal Procedure Code, public de-fenders can carry out their own investigations in preparing a case for clients. Under the old system, they had to rely on evi-dence and witnesses presented by public prosecutors. Valdez can now be fully independent from the public prosecutor.

“Under the old system, if I wasn’t in agreement with the prosecutor’s view of things, I couldn’t get anywhere,” he says.

Valdez’s expertise in conducting investigations and his new skills in oral litigation have helped him win important cases in the last few years. In 2014, seven people were arrested for aggra-vated kidnapping. While they initially sought the support of a private defender who negotiated a plea bargain, three of them insisted they were innocent and went to the public defender’s office. They ended up with Valdez as their attorney, who began investigating for the trial that was just a few weeks away.

Since he became their defender late in the process, Valdez had little time to prepare and initially lost the trial, with each of his clients receiving 30-year sentences. But he continued his investiga-tion during the appeals process, convinced he could bring new evidence to absolve his clients. “The prosecution had offered us witnesses that didn’t want to testify. But through our investiga-tion, we found others who would,” he explains.

The new eyewitnesses corroborated his defendants’ testimonies. His three clients were acquit-ted of all charges.

In years past, going to the public defender’s office would have been as a step down for these defendants. But with the NCJS in operation in Zacatecas, this perception has changed. “We’re the best trained defenders in the state,” says Julio Hikichi, one of Valdez’s colleagues who has also received extensive training funded by USAID. “In recent years, even defendants who can afford a private defender come to us because they know we are better.”

Roberto Valdez feels even more confident as a public defender now. In March 2016, he won another aggravated kidnapping case. Using his own investigation into the crime, he established sufficient reasonable doubt and achieved a not guilty verdict at trial. Not only are the public de-fenders helping acquit defendants they prove to be innocent, but they are also ensuring sen-tences are reasonable and appropriate for a crime in cases where defendants are found guilty.

Valdez and his colleagues continue to refine specific skills and knowledge of the criminal justice system. After years of learning, public defenders say they are digging into the minutiae of the NCJS and always find something new to bring into their own work.

For Roberto Valdez, it has been like receiving another higher education degree, but for free. He is appreciative of the opportunity to continue improving his skills.

“Imagine if I had to pay for these kinds of training. It would have been impossible,” he says. “I’m always trying to improve. I know I can get better,” he adds.

People like Roberto Valdez are the force behind Zacatecas’ strides in the transition to the NCJS. There is still work to be done to complete the process and to ensure the delivery of prompt and expedited justice, as called for by the Mexican people, including those from Zacatecas. USAID, through PROJUST, continues to support these efforts.