I. The Facts:
Doris Jimenez was killed Tuesday, November 21, 2006, between 11:45 am and 1:00 pm, in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Her body was found at about 2:00 pm inside a clothing store she owned. She was tied, strangled and asphyxiated. Doris was popular and attractive and her murder deeply unsettled this small tourist town.
Eric Volz was two hours away in Managua at the time of the murder. Eric, a 27-year old American, had been living in Nicaragua for some two years. Not only were there 10 witnesses who saw him in Managua during the time of the murder, none of the physical evidence recovered from the scene linked Eric to the crime. Indeed, none of the blood, fluid, hair, or other physical evidence collected at the scene had any tie to Eric.
Throughout the day of the murder Eric was in Managua at the house where he lived and worked. Eric’s house in Managua served as the offices of EP Magazine — a sustainable development and lifestyle magazine. Eric awoke there early that morning and entered the office area at around 9:15 am. The housekeeper, security guard and no fewer than five EP workers were there at the time and saw Eric.
At about 10:30 am, Eric received a visit from two women interested in EP Magazine. They met with Eric until approximately 11:00 am. Around noon, Eric met with Ricardo Castillo, a well-regarded journalist and a potential contributing editor for EP Magazine. The meeting between Eric and Castillo included a telephone conference call between Eric, Castillo and a US business contact in Atlanta, Georgia, Nick Purdy. That 54-minute conference call, which ended at 1:14 pm, is supported by phone records. Nick Purdy also had digital time-stamped instant messages from Eric showing that in total the two men were engaged in intensive business communications from approximately 9:21 am until 2:07 pm.
After the call with Nick Purdy, Eric, Castillo and Adam Paredes (an EP employee) had a curried fish and vegetable lunch prepared by the EP housekeeper, Martha. This lunch was witnessed by several EP colleagues. Castillo left the EP house around 2:00 pm.
Eric was at the house in Managua and in the presence of 5 people when he received the news that Doris was dead. He received that news from a friend of Doris’ who called his cell phone and spoke to Eric at 2:43 pm. At about that same time, yet another witness, Rossy, arrived and saw Eric at his house in Managua.
At around 3:00pm, Eric rented a car to go to San Juan del Sur quickly and assist her family. Eric’s own car was old and slow and he often rented a car for the one-lane trip to San Juan. The car was delivered by Hertz Rent A Car to the Managua house. Eric did not meet with the rental car staff himself, however, one of his employees brought him the rental car credit vouchers for Eric to sign. The rental car contract was printed by Hertz Rent A Car at 3:11 pm.
In addition to the witnesses above, Eric’s defense was also able to secure cell phone records (known as “cell site” records that show the location of the cell phone at the time a call is received or made) for Eric’s cell phone which showed that Eric was using his cell phone in Managua that day. The cell site records show that Eric’s cell phone was used in Managua during the time of the murder and until late afternoon when he departed for San Juan del Sur to be with Doris’ family. Indeed, the first call that Eric made outside of the Managua area did not occur until 4:38 pm.
II. The Arrest and Prosecution of Eric Volz:
Despite the conclusive evidence placing Eric two hours away in Managua at the time of the crime in San Juan del Sur, the police issued an arrest warrant for Eric, as well three others: Armando Llanes, Nelson Lopez-Danglas and Julio Chamorro, for the murder of Doris Jimenez. These arrest warrants were based on the prosecution’s first theory that Eric and Llanes, Doris’ current boyfriend, went inside the store with Danglas and Chamorro – two known, petty criminals and drug users from San Juan – and raped and killed Doris. This version of events appears to have come from the unsigned “confession” of Chamorro.
A few days after his arrest, Lopez-Danglas apparently “confessed” that at 1:00 pm he was outside the store and saw Eric and an unknown man inside the store. Lopez-Danglas, who at the time of his arrest had injuries to his penis and scratches on his neck, torso, forearms and hands, stated that Eric asked him to meet him at 1:00 pm in front of Doris’ store and paid him 50 cordobas to move two bags into a white car. In return for this testimony against Eric, Danglas was released and all charges against him were dropped.
Llanes, who is from wealthy Nicaraguan family, presented a piece of paper from a registrar’s office in support of his alibi that he was registering for college classes at the time of the crime. Based on this one piece of paper, the prosecution dismissed all charges against Llanes – without any questioning of him and without securing any hair or blood samples from him. Indeed, Llanes was never even arrested despite the fact that he was charged and that a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Eric and Chamorro, on the other hand, were ordered to go to trial. The prosecution moved forward in spite of the facts that: (1) no one other than Lopez-Danglas, a known criminal, claimed to have seen Eric in San Juan; (2) that the police interviewed several people who testified that Eric was in Managua at the time of the murder; and (3) that absolutely no physical evidence (blood, saliva, hair, fibers or semen) linked Eric to the crime. On the date that Eric was ordered to stand trial, there was a riot outside the courthouse in Rivas where Eric was almost killed by a street mob.
The prosecution presented several witnesses at trial. Only a few had any connection to a case against Eric. Specifically, the prosecution’s evidence against Eric was as follows:
As to physical evidence, the prosecution called several medical examiners who testified that they reviewed the physical evidence collected at the scene (i.e., hair, fluid, and blood) and that none of their tests showed a link to Eric. For example, the medical examiners testified that a small amount of blood that was found on a sheet used to wrap the deceased was O blood type and that Eric was A type. There was also testimony that although over 100 hair samples were collected from the scene, not one could be linked to Eric. In short, there was no physical evidence connecting Eric to the crime scene.
The prosecution called Gabriela Vanessa Sobalvarro, a friend of the deceased, who testified that she called Eric on his cell phone and told him that Doris was dead. The cell site records confirm that Eric was in Managua when he received her call at 2:43 pm. She testified that Eric told her that he would rent a car and go to San Juan.
Doris’ mother took the stand to testify that Eric’s family offered to pay her $1 million to drop the charges. To be clear, Eric’s family made no such offer nor do they have any such means. Indeed, the family has cashed out their savings, held benefit concerts and sought donations from friends to provide Eric a defense. In what has been nothing short of a full blown media campaign in Nicaragua against Eric, Doris’ mother, in her effort to inflame the passions of the people of Rivas and San Juan, has launched a series of preposterous accusations, wholly unsupported by the facts and the evidence.
The prosecution called Victor Jose Morales Gutierrez, a Hertz employee who testified that he delivered a car to Eric’s EP house in Managua in the afternoon of the date of the murder. He also testified that a friend of Eric’s wanted him to testify that he saw Eric at the time of car delivery although he did not. Rental car documents, however, show that Eric personally signed the credit card vouchers, and that the car was delivered after 3:00 pm – after Eric heard that Doris had died.
The prosecution also relied on Chamarro’s unsigned “confession” that he was in San Juan del Sur and saw Eric and Armando Llanes commit the crime. The introduction of Chamorro’s unsigned confession into evidence was particularly egregious. First, because Chamorro did not testify at trial, Eric’s defense was not able to cross examine him regarding that statement. Second, because Chamorro’s “confession” identified Llanes as one of two other murderers, the prosecution had already obviously discredited and disregarded the “confession” when it dismissed all the charges against Llanes. Finally, by presenting an alibi witness to testify at trial that Chamorro was eating lunch at the time of the murder, Chamorro himself recanted his own statement of confession. Thus, despite the fact that Chamarro recanted, that the defense had no opportunity to cross examine Chamarro as to either version of events, and that the prosecution had already disregarded the “confession” in dismissing the charges against Llanes, Chamarro’s “confession” implicating Eric and Llanes, was admitted into evidence, but only against Eric and Chamarro.
Finally, the prosecution called the only witness who could offer direct trial testimony against Eric — Lopez-Danglas, the former co-defendant now turned government witness, who testified that he saw Eric leave the store on the afternoon of the murder, and that he was outside of the store because Eric had asked him to be there. By several accounts, Danglas was visibly incoherent on the stand, and appeared to be under the influence of narcotics. He also admitted his drug use and bad character, admitting that he was a drug user and lazy “but not a liar.”
In short, when the prosecution rested its case only one witness placed Eric in San Juan – a drug user and former co-defendant turned government witness, Danglas. Perhaps more importantly, while no fewer than 103 individual hairs were collected at the scene there was no physical evidence linking Eric to the crime. Indeed, although the prosecution tried to argue that Eric had some scratches on the back of his shoulder (their sole argument on the physical evidence), the forensic tests conducted on the deceased’s body confirmed that she had no skin or blood underneath her fingernails. This easily proved that even if Eric had scratches on the back of his shoulder there is no link between that and the murder. Further, the prosecution failed to establish that Doris had been raped, making Eric’s conviction for that crime equally unsupportable.
III. The Defense Case:
As noted above, no less than ten witnesses were available to reaffirm their prior sworn statements that Eric was in Managua at the time of the murder. However, due to a limitation on the number of witnesses allowed to testify about this critical fact, only four witnesses (including Eric) were allowed to testify that Eric was in Managua during the time of the murder. Even so, the defense case was overwhelming. Indeed, it was conclusive. The following witnesses were permitted to testified on Eric’s behalf:
Ricardo Castillo, a highly regarded Nicaraguan journalist who is internationally recognized and has worked with the BBC of London and the Washington Post, among other papers and news media, testified that he was with Eric on the afternoon of the murder. Castillo, who had only recently met Eric and had no financial interest in EP Magazine, testified that he was meeting and having lunch with Eric from about noon to 2:00 pm.
Nick Purdy is an American businessman and journalist who was exploring the possibility of contributing to EP Magazine. On the day of the murder, Mr. Purdy testified, and telephone records confirm, that he was on the phone with Eric and Mr. Castillo for approximately 54 minutes, from 12:19 to 1:14pm. —again the exact time that the prosecution claims Eric was in San Juan committing the murder. Mr. Purdy also produced his instant messaging notes and testified that he and Eric were communicating for most of the morning and early afternoon.
Rossy Aguello is a hairdresser who had an appointment to cut Eric’s hair the afternoon of the murder. Rossy testified that she arrived at the EP house to cut Eric’s hair at approximately 2:00 pm and saw Eric at the house and was also present when Hertz delivered the rental car to Eric.
Finally, Eric took the stand and testified that he had been at his home in Managua throughout the day of the murder. Needless to say, Eric denied that he had any involvement in Doris’ death.
The testimony of the defense witnesses and the lack of evidence presented by the prosecution would not prove sufficient – residents of Rivas were congregating outside the courtroom and at one point the police fired warning shots at the crowd that clearly served to scare the judge.
IV. The Court’s Sentencing:
During the Court’s preliminary sentence on February 16, 2007, the Court barred US Embassy personnel who had traveled the two hours from Managua from the courtroom. On February 21, 2007, when the Court was to give the full basis for its ruling and sentencing, the Judge never appeared. Instead, the Judge had a clerk read her decision to those present in the Court. Although we hope to have full transcripts of the trial and the sentencing within days, this is what we know:
The Court disqualified rejected the testimony of Ricardo Castillo — an internationally recognized journalist. Her verdict also required her to reject the sworn testimony of Nick Purdy, of Rossy Aguello and of Eric. She also refused to credit the testimony of the medical examiners that testified that none of the evidence at the scene could be linked to Eric – specifically, the evidence that the blood, fluids and hair samples collected had no connection to Eric. She refused to accept any evidence of the phone records that showed Eric was on a telephone conference call in Managua with a business associate in Atlanta. She discredited and ignored the cell site records and the instant messaging notes provided by Mr. Purdy. Instead, the judge relied on the testimony of admitted drug addict Lopez-Danglas, who had been charged with the murder and released after being given full immunity in exchange for his testimony against Eric. The judge also appears to have relied on a picture of Eric that she claimed showed he had a scratch on the back of his shoulder. She relied on this even though the physical evidence showed that the victim had no blood under her fingernails, and therefore, did not scratch her assailant, and in the face of Eric’s testimony that he was scratched there as a result of carrying Doris’ coffin during her funeral services.
Despite the lack of any supporting physical evidence, despite the fact that ten people saw Eric in Managua when Doris was killed, despite the fact that Lopez-Danglas is a known (indeed, admitted) drug addict, despite the fact that Lopez-Danglas testified in return for full immunity after having been charged with the murder, and despite the medical examiner’s finding that Lopez-Danglas had scratches all over his body including his penis, the judge declared Eric guilty and sentenced him to thirty years.