U.S. trial system on view for visitors

By Leonel Sanchez
Monday, March 1, 2010

DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO — The 82 Latin American lawyers and judges who recently visited the federal courthouse saw something they’re still getting used to seeing in their countries: open trials.

The lawyers, mainly from Mexico and Peru, were in San Diego two weeks ago for a five-day crash course on American-style criminal justice procedures.

Many Latin American countries are in the process of switching the way trials are carried out, from a written to an oral-based system. In Mexico, for example, lawyers submit stacks of written briefs to a judge, who reads the material before rendering a decision. Witnesses are not questioned and arguments are not carried out in court.

Seeing how trials work in the United States is critical to the transformation.

“Their jobs depend on this. They need to know this to function in these new criminal justice systems that are being implemented in their countries,” said James Cooper, director of Proyecto ACCESO, a legal think tank based at the California Western School of Law that provided most of the instructors for the course.

The Institute for Criminal Defense Advocacy, also based at Cal Western, co-sponsored the workshop.

Most Latin American countries embarked on judicial reforms to strengthen their democracies in the early 1990s and began moving toward more open trials.

“In the new system, the defendant has many more rights — the right to hear evidence, the right to confront evidence,” Cooper said. “That was not the case in the old system in many countries.”

In the old system, investigating magistrates interviewed witnesses or had a court-appointed functionary do so, Cooper said.

Spanish-speaking law instructors taught the visiting lawyers how to give opening and closing statements, question witnesses and develop trial strategies.

“We learned how to be better doing oral trials, how to be more involved and get better sentences,” said Pedro Perez, a criminal defense lawyer from Peru.

On their last day, they visited the federal courthouse and spent time directing questions to Judges Irma Gonzalez and Louisa Porter.

They also watched preliminary hearings for several criminal defendants.

“They were surprised by the speed that this was all being managed,” said Marco Macklis, Proyecto ACCESO’s program manager.

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