CPJ expresses concern about investigation of Philip True murder

October 18, 2001
Mr. Francisco Ramírez Acuña
Governor of the State of Jalisco
Guadalajara, Mexico

Dear Mr. Ramírez Acuña:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about the investigation into the 1998 murder of American journalist Philip True and the prosecution of the two suspects accused of this crime.

On August 3, Colotlán municipal judge José Luis Reyes Contreras acquitted Juan Chivarra de la Cruz and his brother-in-law Miguel Hernández de la Cruz, who had been accused of murdering True. The Jalisco State attorney general’s office appealed the acquittals in a September 25 hearing before a panel of three judges from the State Supreme Court of Justice. A ruling on the appeal is expected soon.

When the inquiry into True’s death began, CPJ urged Mexican authorities to conduct an exemplary investigation and prosecution so as not to leave any doubt regarding the culpability or innocence of those charged. To ensure that no questions emerged about the impartiality of the investigation, we also insisted that it be as open as possible. Sadly, both the investigation and prosecution have been deeply flawed.

We remain confident that justice can still be done. While we are fully aware of the separation of powers in Mexico and understand that the judiciary acts independently, we urge you to use your authority as governor to ensure that: 1) the prosecution is given the full support it needs to present its case vigorously; 2) that the defendants are able to avail themselves of the full legal protections guaranteed to them under Mexican law; and 3) that the legal process itself is impartial, transparent, and public.

While the facts in this case are well known, a review of the legal developments during the last three years makes clear why we believe that thus far justice has not been served.

True, 50, was a Mexico City correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News. On November 28, 1998, he embarked on a 10-day trip to report on the Huichol Indians, an indigenous population that lives in a mountainous area stretching across Nayarit, Jalisco, and Durango states.

The journalist was last seen alive on December 4 in the village of Salmotita. On December 16, after an intensive search by the Mexican military, True’s body was found in a shallow grave partially covered with rocks at the bottom of a ravine. Neither his wedding ring nor his watch had been taken, suggesting that robbery was not a motive.

On December 26, 1998, authorities arrested Chivarra and Hernández, both Huichol Indians, who confessed to murdering True because he had taken photographs without their permission. The journalist’s belongings, including his camera, binoculars, and backpack, were found at the suspects’ homes.

When the two men were brought into court, they acknowledged killing True but claimed they had acted in self-defense. They also contended that their confession had been extracted under torture; Jalisco State attorney general Gerardo Octavio Solís Gómez has repeatedly denied this assertion.

Several aspects of the investigation and the prosecution cause great concern:

Allegations of torture warranted serious investigation by Mexican authorities. Chivarra and Hernández contend that their confession was extracted under torture, allegations that warranted a serious investigation. However, no such investigation has taken place. While no conclusive evidence has been produced to show that Chivarra and Hernández were in fact tortured, Jalisco State authorities, which deny the suspects’ claim, have not gone far enough in addressing it.

In order to protect the rights of those suspected of committing a crime, provisions regarding pretrial detention and access to counsel must be adhered to strictly. Lapses in due process not only deny the suspects of their rights but also weaken the prosecution’s ability to present a solid case by calling into question the validity of evidence obtained from the suspects.

Mexican authorities have issued three separate–and contradictory–forensic reports, only muddling the investigation and trial. The first, based on an autopsy by Jalisco State medical examiners, found that True had been strangled with his own bandana and sustained a head injury that was not attributable to a fall.

The second report, based on an autopsy by the Federal Attorney General’s Office two days later, concluded that True died from blows to his head and body and from edema (accumulation of fluid in the lungs), most likely after suffering an accidental fall caused by heavy drinking.

It remains unclear why federal authorities ordered a second autopsy. True’s already decomposed body was essentially dismembered during the first autopsy, making the possibility of drawing accurate conclusions from a second autopsy difficult at best. If the first autopsy was flawed, the defense should have challenged it in court. Rather, the arbitrary requirement of a second autopsy left the entire process open to questions.

In March 2000, the third forensic report, which is required under Mexican law when two autopsies yield different results, found that True’s death was caused by a pulmonary edema resulting from a head injury. This conclusion was based solely on the examiner’s analysis of the first two autopsy reports, and at no time did the forensic examiner see True’s body.

Judge Reyes Contreras has been quoted as saying that his decision to release the suspects was based on the second autopsy report, which concluded that True’s death was accidental. But his ruling does not account for the fact that True’s belongings were found in the two suspects’ homes, or that his body was hidden in a grave near the death site.

Efforts by the prosecution to gather evidence have been sloppy at best. During a review of case documentation, we found no record of any attempt to introduce physical evidence, such as fingerprints and hair from True’s belongings, into the proceedings.

Furthermore, once the prosecution obtained confessions from the suspects, investigators neglected to analyze additional evidence. In 1999, for example, a Newsweek reporter found a notebook belonging to True in a warehouse where case evidence was stored. In one entry, True described an encounter with a Huichol man named Juan, possibly a reference to Chivarra.

A just outcome in any trial requires that authorities conduct a thorough investigation and a vigorous prosecution; that suspects have every opportunity to mount a vigorous defense; and that the proceedings are transparent and unbiased. These basic requirements have not yet been met in the True case. The fact that at least three prosecutors and three judges have handled such a complex case has only cast a larger shadow on the process.

We believe, however, that the appeal process in Mexico provides a mechanism through which such discrepancies can be addressed. It is imperative, therefore, that you do everything within your power to ensure that from this point on the legal process is transparent, open, and impartial.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We look forward to your reply.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director