New York, May 31, 2002—A three-judge appeals panel yesterday sentenced two men to a 13-year prison term for the 1998 murder of Philip True, a Mexico City correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News. The unanimous ruling overturned an August 2001 verdict that had acquitted the two men.
The men were found guilty of “intentional homicide,” the San Antonio Express-News reported. The prosecution had sought a conviction on charges of “premeditated murder,” which carries a sentence of up to 20 years. The defendants remain free while their lawyers consider whether to file a final appeal before a federal court.
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 in December 1998 were charged with True’s murder. The Jalisco State Attorney General’s Office appealed the acquittals in a September 25 hearing before the panel of three judges from the Jalisco State Supreme Court of Justice.
Today’s guilty verdict comes a month after Martha True, the journalist’s widow, filed a petition requesting that the appeals panel issue a quick ruling on the case and explain why it was taking so long to reach a decision. Normally, an appeals ruling in Mexico should be issued within 15 days of the hearing.
“We are relieved that after four years this process is nearing an end, and that an appeals panel has unanimously confirmed the guilt of the two suspects,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Body found in shallow grave
In late November 1998, the 50-year-old True 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 claimed that their confession had been extracted under torture, which has been denied by Jalisco State attorney general Gerardo Octavio Solís Gómez.
Both suspects have repeatedly given contradictory statements in interviews with the San Antonio Express-News. While they initially contended that they had never seen True, they later admitted to meeting him. Then in an interview published on August 8, 2001, both men claimed they had seen the journalist but never talked to him.
Differing forensic reports
Mexican authorities have issued three separate forensic reports since True’s body was found. The first, based on an autopsy by Jalisco State medical examiners, found that True had been strangled with his own bandana and had 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, 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.
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.
Judge Reyes Contreras has been quoted as saying that his August 2001 decision to exonerate Chivarra and Hernández was based on the second autopsy report, which concluded that True’s death was accidental. His ruling did 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.
In the latest verdict, the three-judge panel dismissed the second autopsy report because, despite the fact that this was a state case, federal authorities had carried out the autopsy. Furthermore, because the body had been so badly damaged in the first autopsy, the second report was considered seriously flawed.