Public policy graduate students’ documentary racks up three Emmy nominations

Six years ago street vendor Antonio Zuniga was picked up by Mexican police officers as he crossed the street in Iztapalapa, Mexico. He was charged with murder in connection with a gang shooting and sentenced to 20 years behind bars based on the testimony of a single eyewitness.

Two UC Berkeley public policy graduate students and licensed lawyers in Mexico — Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete — received frantic phone calls from Zuniga’s friends and family asking for help.

Zuniga’s case became the basis for the students’ documentary “Presumed Guilty,” through which Hernandez and Negrete freed an innocent man and shed light on the injustices of the Mexican criminal system.

Hernandez and Negrete spent over two years filming the documentary, which has racked up three Emmy nominations. Results of the nominations will be revealed Monday in New York City. The title of the film, Hernandez said, encapsulates the core abuse of Mexico’s criminal justice system: Defendants are presumed guilty.

“(Mexico) does not have a courtroom that’s anything like an American courtroom,” Hernandez said. “We do not have a trial by jury.”

Unlike American courtrooms, judges are rarely present during the trial’s proceedings and instead get an unreliable transcription of testimony from a typist, Negrete said. She added that defendants are caged off inside the courtroom while giving testimony, essentially jailing them before the verdict is even given.

“Presumed Guilty” has become the most viewed documentary in Mexican history, according to Hernandez. The documentary has won 20 awards from film festivals around the world, but Hernandez said the Emmy Award nominations for best documentary, outstanding investigative journalism and best research are the highest honors the documentary has received.

The controversial documentary, which premiered last February, was  distributed in Mexican theaters before being banned — and later unbanned — by courts. Its ticket sales beat out Oscar-winning movies such as Black Swan and The King’s Speech in box office sales, according to Hernandez.

On Saturday, the film — titled “Presunto Culpable” in Spanish — was the first documentary broadcasted on Mexican prime-time television. Hernandez said he expected an audience of 13 million to tune in around the country.

Hernandez and Negrete, who are married with two children, met while conducting survey research on inmates in a Mexico City prison. They realized that pairing images with statistical data was a compelling way of exposing flaws within the judicial system.

They filmed the documentary while simultaneously working toward their Ph.D.s in public policy at UC Berkeley.

UC Berkeley School of Public Policy professor Robert MacCoun, who  worked with Hernandez and Negrete during their academic careers, said he is extremely proud of their accomplishments. He added that the narrative is significant because it finally bridges the gap between academic research on justice and actual citizens’ feelings.

Hernandez said he looks forward to attending the Emmy Awards this Monday “no matter the results,” while Negrete will watch from home with their newborn baby.

“The best part of this whole experience was meeting Antonio and becoming inspired by him,” Negrete said. “When Mexicans say no one can enforce change for this man who is convicted of 20 years in prison, and you challenge the system, the outcome can turn out to be amazing.”